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S.C. legislators look for answers in wreckage of failed nuclear project

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Some 50 South Carolina legislators have formed a bipartisan energy caucus that aims to learn what led to the scuttling of the new reactor project at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station and the layoffs of some 5,000 workers.

During a press conference this morning in the Statehouse lobby, packed with more than 100 workers who lost their jobs Monday, legislators promised to get to the bottom of what led South Carolina Electric & Gas and its partner Santee Cooper to pull the plug.

Besides putting thousands of people out of work, the abandonment threatens to leave it up to electric customers of both companies to cover the $9 billion that has been spent on the construction of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactor units.

“Somewhere along the way the system failed South Carolina’s citizens,” said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia. “A system that leaves ratepayers having to pay the price for an unfinished nuclear plant needs substantial changes.”

Executives of SCANA Corp., parent of SCE&G, said that the company will not rebate customers for nine rate hikes totaling 18% or some $1 billion approved by the Public Service Commission since 2009 when state regulators gave the company a license to build the units. However, SCANA has proposed a plan that would not raise rates for several years, using about $1.1 billion it is receiving from Westinghouse and its parent Toshiba Corp. to cover losses. Westinghouse has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said Democrats and Republicans will push for reforms designed to protect ratepayers, ensure competitive rates and establish a clear and enforceable energy plan for the state.

“We will look not just at the Base Load Review Act but also examine PSC and ORS (Office of Regulatory Staff) reforms,” Smith said. “There should be safeguards in place for accountability and ratepayers should have total protection from paying for the failures of a few.”

Legislators will look at the law that allowed SCE&G to raise rates to cover the cost of borrowing billions to build the reactors while the project was in progress. They also want to dig into why state regulators willingly approved nine rate hikes.

Santee Cooper, also known as the South Carolina Public Service Authority, also is being targeted by the legislators. The state-owned utility, which provides power for some two million South Carolinians, owned 45% of the ill-fated V.C. Summer project while SCE&G owned the remaining 55%.

“In politics, we can be voted out when we mess up,” Smith said. “Those who dropped the ball here should be held accountable.”

SCE&G has about 700,000 electric customers.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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