S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is exploring how to finish one of two nuclear reactors whose construction was halted last week, costing 5,000 workers their jobs.
The Richland Republican is weighing whether to sell Santee Cooper — the state-owned utility that partnered with Cayce-based SCANA, the parent of SCE&G, to build the two reactors — or sell the public utility’s 45 percent ownership in the Fairfield County project, according to the Wall Street Journal.
SCANA and Santee Cooper’s directors voted last week to pull out of the project, unleashing widespread criticism. The two companies already have charged their customers about $2 billion to help finance the project, which they walked away from.
“It should be no surprise that he is continuing to work on this issue,” spokesman Brian Symmes said of McMaster. “Any specific dealings or conversations that he's had right now, I'm not going to comment on those.”
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Reached briefly Monday, Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter said he had not talked to McMaster about selling the state-owned utility or its stake in the nuclear project. McMaster appoints Santee Cooper’s board.
Santee Cooper chairman Leighton Lord, a Columbia attorney, said control of the public utility is in the state's hands. "If the General Assembly and the governor think it's in the best interest of South Carolina (to sell the utility or its share of the nuclear project), I'll support it."
State Sen. Mike Fanning, a Fairfield Democrat whose district includes the reactor site, said he has met with McMaster, adding the governor is “absolutely” in favor of salvaging the project.
“In his mind, everything should be on the table,” Fanning said, adding McMaster thinks S.C. power customers deserve some return for their $2 billion investment in the reactors.
Among the options, Fanning said, are forcing state-owned Santee Cooper to reverse its decision to pull out of the project, enticing another utility to buy out Santee Cooper’s stake in the partially built reactors, requesting help from the pro-nuclear Trump Administration or offering a state loan with strict stipulations.
SCANA chief executive Kevin Marsh has said his company, which owns 55 percent of the unfinished reactors, sought help from the federal government.
"We did hear from the Department of Energy,'' Marsh told the Public Service Commission last week. "They called and offered us a DOE loan, which we had evaluated earlier. But that doesn’t help the situation we’re in.''
Not a new idea
The sale of state-owned Santee Cooper has been discussed for years.
The state utility was formed in 1934 to electrify rural South Carolina. The utility, which owns lakes Marion and Moultrie, provides power to about 2 million of the state’s 4.9 million residents, mostly through the state’s rural electric cooperatives.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said she could not comment on the Wall Street Journal report, which cited one unnamed source. But, Gore said, Santee Cooper is willing to listen to other utilities about buying its stake in the nuclear project.
“When we announced our decision last week, we said we were suspending construction,’’ Gore said. “Among other things, we could now start looking to see if there are other partners.’’
That could include other utilities or help from the federal government, making the project “economical again,’’ Gore said.
In the past, N.C.-based Duke Energy looked at the project.
State Sen. Paul Campbell, a former Santee Cooper board member, said he would like to see the project go forward.
“I’m surprised the federal government has not stepped in and looked at this,’’ said Campbell, R-Berkeley. “If you don’t finish this project, you are telling the world we are done with nuclear power in the United States.’’