Once ignored, small band of protesters proven right about bungled nuclear project

Critics blast over-budget nuclear project

The Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club want the state Public Service Commission to help stop SCE&G from spending more money on building two atomic reactors in Fairfield County. The environmental groups asked regulators Thursday, June 22, 201
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The Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club want the state Public Service Commission to help stop SCE&G from spending more money on building two atomic reactors in Fairfield County. The environmental groups asked regulators Thursday, June 22, 201

Leslie Minerd has walked into government meetings wearing a barrel to symbolize the financial bath that South Carolinians faced if SCE&G built two multi-billion dollar nuclear reactors.

At other times, over the past 10 years, she has waved protest signs, acted in satirical plays or handed out fliers that blasted SCE&G, hoping to sway public opinion against the power company’s construction effort.

But it wasn’t until last year that Minerd’s message began to reverberate with many SCE&G customers and S.C. politicians.

That is when SCE&G and its junior partner, the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, quit the V.C. Summer project after charging their customers more than $2 billion. Reeling from construction problems that drove up the cost, the utilities said they no longer could afford to build the two new reactors in Fairfield County.

Today, Minerd, a Five Points vintage clothes store owner, said she routinely hears from people of all political persuasions about the efforts that she and a small band of left-leaning activists made to kill the project. Until the project's contractor, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy in March 2017, Minerd and friends were among the few challenging the wisdom — and cost — of expanding the V.C. Summer nuclear power station.

“People say ‘Oh God, thank you guys for being there,’ " said Minerd, a former Lancaster resident who has lived in Columbia since attending the University of South Carolina 38 years ago. “I appreciate that they are saying this. But I feel sad it has taken this long’’ for the message to sink in.

Others who have fought the project include veteran anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements, a Georgia native who ran for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina in 2010 as a Green Party candidate, taking 9 percent of the vote; Columbia lawyer Bob Guild, one of the most experienced environmental attorneys in the state; former local rock singer and nuclear critic Susan Corbett; and longtime environmental activists Pamela Greenlaw and Elaine Cooper.

Cooper, who once posed frowning in a picture with President Donald Trump, regularly has recorded protests and PSC meetings on video, often broadcasting live on Facebook. The group also received support from the S.C. Energy Users Committee, an organization of big industries concerned about rising electricity rates.

'We really were alone'

Through the years, the activists' message was simple: the nuclear project's costs would spiral out of control; electricity customers would face higher bills; the reactors would produce power the state did not need; and the untested nuclear design could slow down completion of the project.

Instead, the groups wanted utilities, including SCE&G, to spend money making homes more energy efficient, and developing solar and wind power, which, they say, are cheaper and better for the environment.

“We really were alone in taking on this public fight,’’ Guild said.

State Sen. Mike Fanning, who was not in the Legislature when the project was approved, said lawmakers he has spoken with didn't take the activists seriously at first. They saw the environmentalists as primarily opposing nuclear power, which was counter to the opinion of many lawmakers, said the Fairfield County Democrat and V.C. Summer project supporter.

"It is a little like crying wolf,'' Fanning said. "You are crying wolf that it is going to fail, crying wolf that it is going to fail, and then, all of a sudden, it fails. But people weren't believing you at first."

Fanning said politicians should have listened more carefully to the activists' predictions about the V.C. Summer project. Ironically, Fanning said, much of the information unearthed by the activists now is being used by nuclear supporters to argue that, if the project had been run better, it could have been completed.

SCE&G and Santee Cooper said they could have finished the project but decided to quit the effort July 31, saying it was too expensive. At the time of that decision, the two utilities had spent $9 billion over about a decade of construction. But, the utility officials said, South Carolina didn’t need all of the power that the reactors would have produced, and the bankruptcy of Westinghouse, the project's designer and main contractor, made it impossible to continue.

Minerd, Guild and the other activists are members of either the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth. Those national organizations backed them from the beginning, when the state Public Service Commission first weighed whether to approve the nuclear project in 2009 and, later, as it approved nine rate hikes for SCE&G's customers.

In 2012, a consultant hired by the groups urged SCE&G and Santee Cooper to quit the project and cut their losses. Last year, the organizations filed a legal challenge at the state Public Service Commission, seeking to recoup much of the $2 billion that SCE&G already has charged its customers for the bungled nuclear project.

Other environmental groups largely sat on the sidelines as the unfolding debate developed. Now, however, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League has joined the legal fight, as has the Southern Environmental Law Center. Upstate Forever also has voiced concerns, and many mainstream politicians — from Republican Gov. Henry McMaster to GOP Attorney General Alan Wilson to S.C. House and Senate leaders — now are fretting about the V.C. Summer project’s impact on ratepayers.

'Not a matter of vindication'

While Guild handled much of the legal work in South Carolina, poring over documents and making passionate arguments before the PSC against the project, Clements and Minerd organized many of the anti-nuclear protests. Minerd even helped form an organization called SCAMA to protest SCE&G's parent company, SCANA.

Among those protests were skits that Minerd and Clements participated at the PSC's offices and on the State House grounds. In one play last year, Minerd wore her barrel costume and Clements dressed in an oversized white suit, playing the role of a utility tycoon interested in soaking poor ratepayers like Minerd.

During the protest, Clements held up an oversized check, made out to SCE&G, for untold billions from ratepayers. The skit created a scene on the State House grounds, where blue-suited lobbyists and legislators were strolling by.

“Most people were amused, except those who had a financial stake in this,’’ Clements said, referring to SCE&G executives. “They would just glare at you.’’

Guild, 69, and Clements, 66, said they don’t feel vindicated that the warnings they raised about the project have come true. Since the shutdown, Clements has been the subject of calls from financial analysts, looking for his take on what happened.

“It’s not a matter of vindication,’’ Clements said. “I feel that the objections we raised from a cost perspective and an energy perspective have been totally justified or validated. People finally connected the dots between this struggling nuclear project and the need for a better energy future for our state.’’