Politics & Government

Santee Cooper in talks with Korean company about reviving VC Summer nuclear project

It has been called the largest financial failure in the history of South Carolina. But one day, the state’s abandoned nuclear power construction project could be revived by a group of South Korean and U.S. companies.

In an interview with The State this week, new Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall confirmed the state-owned utility is in discussions with “a party from the outside” that wants to finish the mammoth V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion. Santee Cooper and majority owner SCE&G spent billions of dollars building the overdue and overbudget twin reactors before quitting construction in July 2017.

The State has learned that a consortium of companies — including South Korea’s state-run power company, Korea Electric Power Corporation — are in talks with Santee Cooper about a possible revival of the mothballed power project.

But Bonsall insisted Santee Cooper won’t invest any more money or take on any more risk if the project is revived. Santee Cooper, which owns most — if not all — of the nuclear parts and equipment left at the site, could sell those parts to the consortium in exchange for cash or electricity generated by the reactors if they are finished.

Tasked with rightsizing Santee Cooper after the project’s failure, Bonsall also made clear the utility is not banking on V.C. Summer’s revival.

Asked about the likelihood the plant is completed, he replied, “We are not basing (Santee Cooper’s) new business plan on the assumption that that goes forward.”

Still, finishing the project would have huge implications for South Carolina. The reactors would provide new jobs to economically depressed Fairfield County, home of the V.C. Summer site, where thousands of construction workers were fired when the project was abandoned.

The expansion also would give customers of Santee Cooper and the electric cooperatives that distribute Santee Cooper’s power something in return for the thousands of dollars they will have to pay over the next four decades for the V.C. Summer expansion. (The co-ops are suing to stop those charges).

South Koreans interested

Bonsall would not name the companies involved, other than to say: “They’re huge. They’re national. ... They’re very real people. They’re experienced. So for them, it is feasible.”

The State has learned at least one of the companies is South Korea’s state-run power company, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO).

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, told The State he met with KEPCO representatives in April about their interest in reviving V.C. Summer.

Other State House sources confirmed KEPCO — which has built nuclear plants all over the world and now is constructing four reactors in the United Arab Emirates — are part of the consortium eyeing V.C. Summer.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said only that two of the three companies in the consortium are based in South Korea, while the third is a company from the United States.

“These are legitimate, well-financed companies that know what they’re doing,” state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, told a group of Georgetown County Republicans in March, according to CoastalObserver.com.

Not a serious option, critics say

Any effort to finish the project faces major obstacles, including:

A years-long process of obtaining necessary regulatory approvals, including a combined operating license for the two reactors. Santee Cooper surrendered that license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January.

Finding a way to pay for the construction effort, which could cost tens of billions of dollars to complete. Nuclear power plants are notoriously expensive to build. The price of Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion has more than doubled to $27 billion.

Finding buyers for the electricity produced by the completed plant, especially since the project’s construction costs would be baked into the price of that power.

Working out a creative ownership arrangement for the project, since foreign companies legally cannot be majority owners of a nuclear power plant in the United States.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pushed lawmakers to sell Santee Cooper, is skeptical.

“If there is a legitimate deal to be struck, then of course it should be considered,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes wrote in a statement to The State. “But there’s nothing to suggest that this is a serious option at this point. The General Assembly will determine the path forward for Santee Cooper in January. This half-baked plan is simply a distraction and it undermines credible efforts to protect ratepayers and taxpayers.”

Davis said when he met with KEPCO officials earlier this year, they were planning to travel to Washington, D.C., to ask federal officials about the availability of federal tax credits that could help offset the construction costs.

On July 31, Sen. Grooms, whose district includes Santee Cooper, and Santee Cooper’s top attorney, Michael Baxley, flew to Washington, D.C., in the state plane for a meeting with White House officials, according to flight logs reviewed by The State.

Both Grooms and a spokeswoman for the state-owned utility, said the meeting was about “economic development” but would not say whether the meeting pertained to V.C. Summer.

Asked if the trip was a worthwhile use of state tax dollars, Grooms — who managed to snag a photo with Vice President Mike Pence that day — said, “Yes.”

Grooms, Santee Cooper’s biggest defender in the General Assembly, brokered several meetings between state senators and consortium representatives this spring.

Efforts to reach KEPCO for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

One of those senators, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, said he remembers briefly meeting with South Korean businessmen but came away with few details of their plans.

“There has been a significant investment made up there already, and the parts are there,” the Edgefield Republican said. “If somebody could come in and make it work, then terrific. I would be interested in how that would work financial for the company ... and for the customers.”

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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