Opinion Extra

How pro-coal federal policy helped kill the SC nuclear plants

Coal miners wave signs as then-candidate Donald Trump speaks during a 2016 campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia. In May, President Trump ordered the repeal of the Clean Power Plan that promoted, among other things, nuclear energy.
Coal miners wave signs as then-candidate Donald Trump speaks during a 2016 campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia. In May, President Trump ordered the repeal of the Clean Power Plan that promoted, among other things, nuclear energy. AP

The decision by Santee Cooper and SCANA to suspend construction of the nuclear facility at Fairfield County’s V.C. Summer site is catastrophic on many fronts. While a plethora of factors can be blamed, this decision also represents a failure of government policy. It could have been avoided.

At the time construction began on the project, the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gas emissions, a cause of global warming. Like solar and wind, nuclear energy produces no carbon emissions. Responding to the Supreme Court decision, President Obama’s administration promulgated regulations on carbon emissions through the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. That plan required states to meet certain emission reduction targets. Currently more than 50 percent of our state’s energy is supplied by nuclear, so it stood to reason that our state’s leaders would choose nuclear to meet our future energy needs and our emission reduction targets.

EPA’s original proposal credited states for emission reductions from existing nuclear production, but not from new nuclear production. In view of South Carolina’s decision to go nuclear, I worked feverishly with the Obama administration to ensure that the final regulations gave proper credit to future nuclear units. The final version did so. The new nuclear facility would allow South Carolina to hit its emissions targets with ease.

Unfortunately, Attorney General Alan Wilson, and 23 other states, sued to block the implementation of Clean Power Plan, stalling it in the courts, and in May President Trump ordered the plan’s repeal. With no system regulating carbon emissions, the market today does not adequately reflect the benefits of nuclear and other clean-energy sources.

Abandoning the Summer project is disastrous from an environmental perspective. SCANA has said it will likely need new natural-gas plants in the coming years, and Santee Cooper is considering reversing the closure of one of its older coal plants. Our state may now have to double down on fossil energy instead of continuing on the path to a carbon-free future.


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For some reason, most environmental groups that demand action on climate change were rather muted as the pitched battle over the efficacy of this project raged on, and a few groups have even cheered the shutdown.

There are federal tax credits available for the building of nuclear facilities, as there are for many sources of energy. However, technical problems with the current law have prevented the Summer project from receiving full federal support. For several years, I have worked with my colleagues in the S.C. delegation to address these issues: to extend the completion deadline and to allow public utilities to receive the tax credits. Passage of these changes would have provided more than $2 billion in federal funds to complete this project.

During negotiations on tax legislation in late 2015 and appropriations legislation this year, there seemed to be bipartisan agreement in the Senate to include this provision. Republican leadership in the House, however, was ambivalent, and the Trump administration refused to engage, further hampering its chances. Ultimately, doubt about the bill’s passage was one factor in the decision to abandon construction.

More than 5,000 jobs will be jettisoned and hundreds of South Carolinians are suddenly unemployed. Fairfield County will lose millions of dollars in anticipated tax revenue, and our nation will suffer immeasurably.

The proverb “where there is no vision, the people perish” seems apropos in this and too many instances for far too many South Carolinians. The environmental devastation brought on by a rapidly warming planet is real, and too many of our leaders lack the will and vision to chart another course.

Mr. Clyburn represents South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District and serves as assistant Democratic leader in the U.S. House; follow him on Twitter @Clyburn or contact him at jclyburn@mail.house.gov.