Rate hike foes say critical report would have helped their fight

Rate hike foes say critical report would have helped their fight

The State
September 21, 2017

BY AVERY G. WILKS

In 2016, SCE&G hosted a media tour to see the two nuclear reactors under construction at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in Jenkinsville.

Challengers of SCANA’s handling of the doomed V.C. Summer nuclear project say they could have done more to block rate hikes had the Caycebased utility not buried a report that diagnosed critical problems at the Fairfield County site.

Until earlier this month, SCANA made no mention of the February 2016 report, keeping it from state agencies that oversee utilities, claiming it was a confidential legal document.

The report, completed by Bechtel Corp. about 18 months before the nuclear expansion was abandoned, offered evidence the project was off the rails and made recommendations.

Had it known about those problems, the Electric Cooperatives of S.C. would have pushed state-owned Santee Cooper, the project’s junior partner, to keep lead contractor Westinghouse on a shorter leash, chief executive Mike Couick said.

Couick said he would have threatened to rein in payments from the co-ops to Santee Cooper until Westinghouse provided a realistic construction schedule and price tag, which could have forced the contractor to pull out sooner.

“We don’t believe we should keep sending money to something when we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Couick, one of several people who negotiated a 2016 agreement that capped SCANA’s spending on the project.

The report also could have given SCANA watchdogs more leverage in negotiations over the project’s cost and the utility’s guaranteed profits, said Frank Knapp, chief executive of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

It also would have stirred up public attention to the failing venture, which went mostly under the radar until this year, he said.

“I worked very hard to make sure it was in the public eye – what’s going on with the nuclear plant – because that gets us leverage,” Knapp said. “This would have amplified it, maybe exponentially.”

Bob Guild, an attorney for the S.C. Sierra Club, said a capable Public Service Commission could have used the Bechtel report’s findings to shut down the V.C. Summer project two years ago.

However, the current commission probably would have ruled in favor of SCANA’s rate-hike requests anyway, given how consistently it rubber-stamped the utility’s proposals, Guild said.

“That’s why we’ve got a serious problem with how we regulate utilities in this state,” Guild said.

In hearings last Friday and Monday, SCANA chief executive Kevin Marsh said the utility considers the Bechtel report confidential.

He denied hiding important information from state regulators, including the Office of Regulatory Staff, saying the agency was aware of some of the problems detailed in the report. Marsh also said SCANA had been aware of the problems for years and had worked to address them.

Regulatory Staff director Dukes Scott would not comment Wednesday on whether his agency knew of those problems, saying he needed to talk with his staff. Scott said he would provide those answers at future State House hearings.