Politics & Government

What went wrong? SC senators want outside report on failed nuclear project

S.C. senators voted Tuesday to subpoena a 2015 report outlining what was going wrong with the construction of two nuclear reactors then being built in Fairfield County.

That analysis, by the Bechtel Corp., found problems at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station and made recommendations, said Leighton Lord, chairman of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility.

“We then tried to have some of those recommendations put into effect to improve the situation,” Lord said.

The senators requested the report during their first meeting to investigate the decision last month by Santee Cooper and Cayce-based SCANA to abandon the project after spending almost $10 billion.

The utilities cited cost overruns, construction delays, the bankruptcy of project contractor Westinghouse and falling demand for energy, after the Great Recession, as reasons for abandoning the project.

That decision cost more than 5,000 workers their jobs building the reactors. Customers of SCANA’s SCE&G subsidiary also could be on the hook for at least another $2.2 billion in costs to close out the project. Those customers already have paid $1.4 billion for the failed nuclear construction project.

“We’re interested in an outside analysis as to what was causing the delays, what was causing the problems that they were having,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “It does seem like the Bechtel company did an analysis that was perhaps not all that favorable to them, and decisions were then made as a result of receiving that report.”

Massey added it appeared Santee Cooper and SCANA requested the report in 2014 in anticipation of filing suit against Westinghouse.

The utilities received the report in 2015 and, based on it, recommended changes in 2016, Lord said.

“I think it’s going to shed light on the particular failure or shortcomings of this project,” said state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry.

The report will provide an independent assessment by experts in nuclear projects that will help senators understand what went wrong, he said.

‘All a matter of dollars’

Pressed by senators Tuesday to give an estimate of how much it would cost to complete the reactors, utility officials were hesitant.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, requested the utilities provide a cost estimate at the panel’s next meeting, set for Sept. 13.

Dukes Scott, head of the state’s Office of Regulatory Staff, said it could take multiple new partners and help from the federal government to complete the project. “It’s all a matter of dollars.”

Stephen Byrne, chief operating officer of SCANA, agreed. “We would need help.”

However, simply spending more money would not solve the problem, said Santee Cooper chief executive Lonnie Carter. It also would take a guarantee that the project’s cost would not explode again, he said.

While Santee Cooper and SCANA officials repeatedly blamed the failure of the V.C. Summer expansion on Westinghouse, senators focused on the utilities, including questioning how closely they had supervised progress on the project.

“At some point, there’s got to be some responsibility for both Santee Cooper and SCANA,” Sen. Massey told executives of both utilities, citing “rumors” that some of them soon could be fired.

If that happens, executives should not leave with a severance agreement that includes a prohibition on them testifying before legislators, Massey warned. “I want to make sure people are going to talk to us and we’re going to be able to get the information.”

A special S.C. House panel will begin its own review of the failed project Wednesday.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

SCANA executive discharged from hospital

SCANA chief executive Kevin Marsh was taken to a Columbia hospital Tuesday in “severe pain.”

Marsh had been at the State House preparing to testify before a state Senate panel investigating the Cayce-based utility’s decision to abandon the construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.

After a brief midday break, Marsh and other SCANA executives were to testify. However, SCANA chief financial officer Jimmy Addison told senators that Marsh had taken ill and was in “severe pain.”

Marsh was treated for kidney stones and discharged Tuesday afternoon, said SCANA spokesman Eric Boomhower.