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Nuclear plant opponents take case to high court

Opponents of a plan to build two nuclear power reactors in Fairfield County asked the S.C. Supreme Court on Thursday to require more study before the project moves forward.

Friends of the Earth attorney Bob Guild said the S.C. Public Service Commission is giving the SCE&G utility a blank check for two "unneeded and untested, risky nuclear plants."

The environmental group, which says it has about 500 S.C. members, is challenging the law the commission used that allowed the $9.8 billion project to move forward.

Guild said the cost for the two new reactors that S.C. Electric & Gas plans to build at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station near Jenkinsville could balloon, pushing some customers to seek alternative energy and hiking up costs for the ones who are left.

But an attorney representing the Public Service Commission said the utility's plans have been thoroughly reviewed and there are procedures in place to keep it from unnecessarily driving up rates.

The court's decision could be weeks away. Justices are scheduled to hear a similar appeal April 6 from the S.C. Energy Users Committee, which claims the commission is allowing the utility to overcharge ratepayers.

SCE&G plans to build the 1,117-megawatt reactors with a partner, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility.

The reactors received approval a year ago from the Public Service Commission. But final federal approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a couple of years away, SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said outside the courtroom.

The utility plans to start construction in 2013; prep work, such as road paving, is under way. The first reactor would be fired up in 2016 and the second in 2019.

SCE&G recently raised rates a total of $1.90 a month for each user to help pay for the reactors. By 2019, it will phase in additional increases that will boost the average monthly bill by $40.

Guild, the Friends of the Earth attorney, called for the PSC and the Office of Regulatory Staff to make a more thorough review of the utility's plans. Guild also said SCE&G should be required to develop a plan to conserve energy before being given approval to build the plants, which the utility says are needed to serve the state's future power needs.

"Once this decision is made, it's binding," he said. "And there is no turning back."

But Belton Zeigler, an attorney representing the PSC, said the commission has a 160-page report with 74 findings that show "copious support" for the reactors. In addition, he said SCE&G must seek state approval for all rate increases, preventing unnecessary costs.

"Nuclear is the low-cost, most responsible option for meeting the needs of customers today," he said.

The reactors are necessary, Boomhower said after the court hearing, to meet growing demand for electricity and are a critical part of drawing large companies such as Boeing to the area. The state landed a blockbuster deal at the end of 2009 to bring a Boeing jet assembly plant - and thousands of new jobs - to the Lowcountry.

"We can't just wait and say, 'We'll just turn the switch on when it comes,' " Boomhower said. "You have to plan ahead and build for it."

The reactor project is expected to bring 3,000 to 4,000 jobs to the state during construction at a time when jobless levels are breaking records. The project would add 800 to 1,000 permanent jobs once the reactors are operating.

"That's going to be a positive for the state as a whole," Boomhower said.

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