JENKINSVILLE Like many campgrounds, the one Ann Frazier-Melton and her family developed has most of the things folks would want: electrical hookups, running water, a gazebo, a fire pit and a laundromat – but its clientele represents a different breed of camper.
Those living there are nuclear construction workers who make good money and rent spaces for their recreational vehicles. Frazier-Melton figures her family is earning about $50,000 each month from workers who are building two nuclear reactors just up the road.
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That revenue stream could dry up if SCE&G and Santee Cooper walk away from their effort to build the reactors near Jenkinsville. With costs escalating and ratepayers grumbling about high power bills, the future of the $14 billion nuclear reactor project is under review by both utilities. If the project is not finished, workers like those who stay at Frazier-Melton’s campground could lose their jobs.
“It would be devastating to us,’’ Frazier-Melton said of chances the project will be abandoned. “We’re now just waiting to see.’’
So are plenty of other Fairfield County residents. While some people want the project dropped, many locals say finishing the two nuclear reactors could bring a prosperous future to one of South Carolina’s smallest counties.
They’re depending on the V.C. Summer plant expansion to provide spinoff economic opportunities for small businesses, as well as high-paying jobs and millions of dollars in fees for Fairfield County.
Despite rising power bills and more radioactive waste from additional reactors, county leaders say the expansion project could generate revenue for better roads, water and sewer lines, industrial parks and recreational sites that Fairfield County needs.
“If this doesn’t move forward, it will stunt Fairfield’s ability to grow in the future,’’ County Administrator Jason Taylor said. “We will not have the revenue to build infrastructure for additional growth. That is the bottom line.’’
Taylor said the existing plant, constructed in the 1980s, does more for Fairfield County than many people realize. The Summer plant, with its single reactor, already provides Fairfield about $28 million a year in tax revenues for schools and the county’s general services.
Adding two more reactors could provide another $50 million annually as a result of a fee agreement negotiated between the county and plant operators, he said.
“I can’t overemphasize the critical need this county has for infrastructure,’’ Taylor said. “This county would blossom if it had that.’’
The county, for instance, could use some of the money from the two reactors to help pay off the debt on a $24 million bond issue to help with infrastructure and other county needs. The bond issue included money to help develop an industrial park. As it stands, the payoff is coming from general tax revenues, Taylor said.
SCE&G and partner Santee Cooper expect to decide the future of the V.C. Summer expansion by mid-fall, if not sooner. Officials from both companies have said they’d like to finish the work, but won’t do so if the cost is too great.
The companies have collectively hit customers with 14 rate increases, with more potentially on the horizon. In SCE&G’s case, those rate increases have brought in $1.4 billion. Originally projected to cost about $11 billion, the nuclear project could cost as much as $23 billion, according to some accounts.
Located just north of booming Richland County and Columbia, Fairfield is a mostly rural place of small towns, farm fields and forests.
With just 23,000 residents, Fairfield is one of the 10 smallest counties in the state. Fairfield’s per capita income, just under $32,000, is 25th out of 46 counties. And its jobless rate, while improving, was among the highest in the state in May at 5 percent, statistics show.
The county has been known in recent decades for a now-closed gold mine, several scenic lakes and for Interstate 77, the major artery between Columbia and Charlotte. It hasn’t been without economic success in the past, but a Mack Truck plant that opened amid great fanfare closed more than 15 years ago, as did the gold mine.
The V.C. Summer plant, however, has remained a steady jobs-provider through the years, employing as many as 800 workers before the expansion project started. Not all of those workers live in Fairfield County, but employees spend money in the county on their way to homes in Richland, Newberry and other counties, expansion boosters say. The site is about 27 miles northwest of Columbia.
Since SCE&G and Santee Cooper launched efforts to build two more reactors about a decade ago, county leaders say they’ve gotten a glimpse of the prosperity that could come later if the V.C. Summer expansion is finished.
Fairfield County has seen its unemployment drop sharply since the expansion efforts started in 2008. Today, as many as 5,000 workers are employed at the V.C. Summer site in what is one of the biggest construction projects in the Carolinas and Georgia. Some of the job improvement numbers relate to a generally improving economy across the state and nation, but the economic impacts of the Summer project can’t be ignored, some county leaders say.
Houses, apartments, motor courts and campgrounds, like the one Frazier-Melton owns, have filled up with construction workers. Her campground has space for about 150 campers, but that’s not enough to meet demand, she said.
The grill at Gill’s general store – a local landmark – feeds scores of hungry construction workers each day as they complete shifts or take lunch breaks.
During a scorching hot afternoon this past week, V.C. Summer workers sat at folding tables and ate hamburgers, chicken tenders and curly fries. Others purchased soft drinks from the cooler on their way back to work.
“It gets crowded,’’ store clerk Aaron Cleary said as he worked the cash register.
Among the workers stopping by Gill’s last week were John Belk and Adam Olson, both of whom work for a subcontractor at the V.C. Summer site. Both said their jobs pay well and they hope to keep them, even as questions swirl about whether the project will shut down. Neither had heard whether the project would continue.
“I’m not far enough up the ladder to be informed,’’ Belk said as he left Gill’s.
Anthony Gray and Kevin Caughman said not finishing the plant would hurt not only Fairfield, but surrounding counties such as Newberry, where many workers live. As they fished in Parr Lake in the shadow of the nuclear construction site, both said the work should be completed.
“It means more jobs,’’ Gray said. “I know a good many people who work there because it pays good money.’’
Some of their friends earn up to $27 per hour working construction – a wage higher than many local businesses pay, they said. The plant has trained some unskilled workers and given them skills for the future, Caughman said.
“People have been able to sustain themselves, buying homes and cars, just through that place over there,’’ Caughman said. “They’re concerned now. They hope it don’t close. They’re making some money.’’
One ex-employee whose boyfriend is a welder at the Summer site said some people who have moved temporarily to work on the reactor project are paid meal and housing money, as well as handsome salaries.
The woman, who declined to give her last name because of fear of reprisal by her boyfriend’s employer, said that’s part of the reason the couple lives in temporary quarters hundreds of miles from their Florida home. The couple has taken up residence in a recreational vehicle at Frazier-Melton’s campground.
Not everyone agrees the project will be an economic boon for the county.
Nuclear projects have their hazards, and critics say building two more reactors isn’t worth the effort given the cost and the possible danger. Potentially deadly nuclear waste will continue to pile up on the site, raising chances of an accident, they say.
They also say the existing V.C. Summer power plant has done little economically for Jenkinsville and surrounding communities. And they’re quick to note that thousands of construction jobs will end when the reactors are completed one day.
Bus driver Ronald Rhodes said he’s seen only mild evidence that the existing Summer reactor has helped Jenkinsville since it began operating in the 1980s.
“You look at the town, (it is) dead,’’ he said of Jenkinsville as he sat in the cab of his parked bus last week. Aside from Gill’s, Jenkinsville contains a handful of closed businesses, a few mobile homes and several brick houses. A makeshift town hall, formed from an old house, also is along the route.
Rhodes said that since Jenkinsville is on Lake Monticello, it should be booming with development – but that isn’t the case. He said the nuclear plant might actually have chilled development opportunities because people are concerned about hazards from the plant.
“You can’t get business in here,’’ Rhodes said. “The nuclear plant, they are not putting up anything. Nobody has come in and put up anything because of the nuclear place.’’
Former state Rep. Tim Wilkes said the county has pinned too much hope on a project with so many potential obstacles. That was obvious when the V.C. Summer expansion project was announced about 10 years ago, he said.
“People felt like we won the property tax lottery and were going to be the richest county in South Carolina,’’ Wilkes said. “It was like a gold mine, but it was going to last forever and ever and ever.’’
Now, Wilkes said, people are facing reality.
“I don’t think it really dawned on people how gloomy it might be if, in fact, this does not materialize,’’ Wilkes said.
Frazier-Melton concedes there is uncertainty around completion of the project, but said she can’t imagine SCE&G and Santee Cooper walking away from the reactors without completing them.
“We knew it was a risk to start with,’’ she said of the campground. “We thought it was a more calculated risk than what we’re hearing. Hopefully, they will complete it and everyone will be happy.’’