Santee Cooper on Tuesday sued the lead contractor of its failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant construction project — the latest swing in a fight over who owns the abandoned equipment and parts left at the massive construction site in Fairfield County.
The state-owned utility’s legal battle with Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Co. is important to the two million South Carolinians who get Santee Cooper’s power, either directly or through an electric cooperative that buys and distributes it.
Santee Cooper could make tens of millions of dollars selling the equipment, if not more. That money could be used to lessen the rate hikes that are expected after the $9 billion V.C. Summer project’s collapse.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Charleston, the state-owned utility asks a judge to rule that Santee Cooper owns all the equipment left after the V.C. Summer site.
The lawsuit also asks a judge to order Westinghouse to give Santee Cooper the certification documents for that equipment, necessary if the nuclear parts are to be used or sold.
That includes major equipment such as steam generators, reactor coolant pumps, turbines, and cooling towers as well as basic materials such as rebar, pipes and cables. Those parts were left unused when Santee Cooper and its majority partner in the effort, Cayce-based SCE&G, quit the overbudget and long-delayed construction effort on July 31, 2017.
The lawsuit comes a month after Westinghouse filed its own lawsuit against Santee Cooper. In that filing, Westinghouse accuses Santee Cooper of thwarting multiple opportunities to sell the nuclear equipment to Georgia-based Southern Co. because Santee Cooper refused to cooperate with Westinghouse on those sales or share the profits.
Efforts to reach Westinghouse for comment Tuesday afternoon were not immediately successful.
Westinghouse and Santee Cooper don’t have a friendly relationship. Over the course of the near-decade-long V.C. Summer project, Santee Cooper and SCE&G executives regularly complained about Westinghouse’s performance in building the project, including missed deadlines, cost overruns and shoddy engineering designs.
The first reactor was supposed to go online in April 2016, and the second in January 2019.
But Westinghouse’s bankruptcy in March 2017 all but doomed the construction venture, which collapsed just months later. The project has led to higher Santee Cooper electric rates — the utility’s direct-serve customers will pay $6,200 per household for the project in higher power bills over the next four decades — and prompted state lawmakers to consider selling the 85-year-old utility.
In the lawsuit, Santee Cooper lists several reasons why Westinghouse shouldn’t be allowed to claim ownership of the nuclear equipment.
The utility says it and SCE&G paid for all the equipment on the site. (Later, in December 2018, SCE&G gave its 55% ownership claim to Santee Cooper in order to claim tax credits from the federal government).
Santee Cooper said Westinghouse never claimed ownership of the equipment until it was purchased by an investment firm, Brookfield Business Partners, in August 2018 and emerged from bankruptcy.
And crucially, Santee Cooper said, Westinghouse didn’t claim the V.C. Summer equipment on its list of assets during bankruptcy proceedings. Nor did it claim that equipment when it returned to the site in early 2018 to claim any assets it left behind.
Furthermore, Westinghouse hasn’t contributed a dime to the preservation and maintenance of the expensive equipment, Santee Cooper says. That has cost Santee Cooper $5 million so far.