Politics & Government

Fired nuclear construction workers crash State House

State Rep. James Smith announces Energy Caucus days after cancellation of two nuclear reactors

State Rep. James Smith announces Energy Caucus days after cancellation of two nuclear reactors in SC.
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State Rep. James Smith announces Energy Caucus days after cancellation of two nuclear reactors in SC.

They trooped into the S.C. State House wearing reflective vests, blue jeans and hard hats Wednesday – and cheered when lawmakers suggested someone should hang for the nuclear boondoggle.

It was not your everyday State House press conference.

Roughly 60 newly unemployed construction workers crowded onto the second-floor lobby of the Capitol on Wednesday.

Seeking answers, or closure, or just looking to show solidarity with their former coworkers, the workers crashed the announcement of a bipartisan “Energy Caucus” of state lawmakers. Those lawmakers promised to make sweeping changes after two utilities this week aborted the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.

“I’m hoping we can make some sense out of this mess,” said Ephraim Lopez, a 40-year-old former warehouse foreman at the V.C. Summer nuclear site, near Jenkinsville. “We got no warning – no nothing. Just pack your bags and go.”

During the press conference, a group of S.C. legislators – led by state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – shared the workers’ anger.

They blamed the utilities – state-owned Santee Cooper and Cayce-based SCE&G – for raising rates on consumers to pay for the reactors, then failing to finish the job. They blamed state regulators for letting that happen and suggested high-level officials be canned.

The legislators vowed to find ways to better protect S.C. power customers – now on the hook for the failed project – and to devise an enforceable, forward-looking statewide energy plan.

During the presser, Smith acknowledged the crowd of workers, fired unceremoniously Monday.

“You deserve better,” the Richland Democrat said to applause.

Two days after the announcement, some of the workers said they were still in shock.

They said they had heard rumors about the site’s financial problems but never expected the utilities to abandon a project that employed 5,000 workers and promised a massive impact for the local economy. They said they had no warning from superiors before being let go about lunchtime Monday.

“I don’t think any of us expected it to happen that way,” said Guy Murray, a 55-year-old tool room worker at the site. “What are you going to do next? What about your bills? Your kids?”

The workers shared plans to attend the press conference on Facebook. Some held out hope the project could be revived, perhaps with a bailout from the federal government.

Others, like New Orleans native Brian Dunne, were less optimistic. The 40-year-old equipment buyer, like many other workers from out of state, already was making plans to move back home.

“I came to show support and listen to politicians blow smoke up people’s backsides,” he said.

Timeline of the effort by SCE&G, Santee Cooper and Westinghouse to build two more reactors at VC Summer nuclear station in Fairfield County

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

New Energy Caucus

S.C. legislators are forming a bipartisan group to brainstorm a statewide energy plan, including how to respond to Monday’s decision to cancel the construction of two nuclear reactors

Republicans: State Sens. Paul Campbell, Greg Gregory, Katrina Shealy, and Tom Young, plus state Reps. Tommy Pope, Gary Simrill, Nathan Ballentine, Lin Bennett, Micah Caskey, Gary Clary, Neal Collins, Jason Elliott, Kirkman Finlay, Bill Herbkersman, Lee Hewitt, Peter McCoy, and Weston Newton

Democrats: State Sens. Margie Bright Matthews, Thomas McElveen, Mia McLeod and Vincent Sheheen, plus state Reps. Todd Rutherford, Beth Bernstein, Russell Ott, James Smith, Laurie Funderburk and Leon Stavrinakis

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