What to do about the mothballed construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County is a question mystifying lawmakers and some leaders in the state’s energy sector.
However, common ground is emerging around one idea – all options need to be on the table.
“No sacred cows,” said Michael Couick, chief executive officer of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, which serves some of the power customers now footing the bill for the two unfinished reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in Jenkinsville.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, agreed.
“Everything has to be considered. We short-change ourselves as policymakers if we remove any of the options,” he said, adding power customers must be protected in any plan. “What must not happen are more unintended consequences.”
Critics say one of the “sacred cows” has been Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that partnered with the Cayce-based SCANA utility to build the reactors. Both Santee Cooper and SCANA’s directors voted last week to pull out of the project, citing soaring cost overruns and the bankruptcy of contractor Westinghouse.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster reportedly is exploring selling Santee Cooper to pay to complete at least one of the proposed reactors. That move would require action by the General Assembly.
Lawmakers have rejected that idea before.
Then-Gov. Mark Sanford reportedly proposed selling the utility in 2003, hiring an investment bank to determine the utility’s sale value. Lawmakers responded by limiting the governor’s power over the utility.
“It would take a lot of convincing me to sell Santee Cooper,” state Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, told The State Tuesday. The utility is “good for this state. They are able to help attract industry in our state, create jobs.”
Finding an investor to help restart the Fairfield County project — by taking on Santee Cooper’s 45 percent stake — is another option.
But no utility seems interested.
North Carolina-based Duke Energy talked to Santee Cooper in 2013 and 2014 about buying part of its stake in the nuclear project, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. However, those negotiations ended after SCANA objected and offered, instead, to buy part of Santee Cooper’s stake in the project, the Journal reported.
A Duke spokesman said Tuesday that utility “has not had any formal conversations with SCANA or Santee Cooper regarding interest in one or both of its units (reactors).”
‘A lot ... we don’t know’
GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled S.C. House and state Senate said legislators and the public need more information before decisions are made about how to move forward.
“There is a lot that we don’t know. There are a lot of questions to be asked,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “Everything ought to be on the table. I appreciate the governor being engaged.”
Massey and state Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, will co-chair a state Senate panel that will review the nuclear project, Senate President Pro Tem Leatherman said Tuesday.
The panel’s goal should be to protect power customers and prevent similar failures, Leatherman wrote to the senators.
“The decision to abandon the project leaves South Carolinians strapped with paying for new facilities that will never provide electricity to their homes or businesses,” Leatherman wrote, adding the project’s failure “will touch every home in our state,” citing recently proposed rate increases by SCANA’s SCE&G subsidiary and Santee Cooper.
Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said the House will review “every possible angle” that led to the nuclear project’s suspension.
“I look forward to discussing this scenario and every other idea that has been floated with Gov. Henry McMaster so that we can work together to find the best possible solution for South Carolina’s ratepayers,” Lucas said.
What went wrong?
Lawmakers and energy stakeholders are gearing up to review what went wrong with the V.C. Summer project:
▪ The State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee — made up of senators, representatives and members of the public — meets Aug. 23.
▪ A state Senate committee was announced Tuesday but has not said yet when it will start meeting.