The Nucor mill in rural Huger is taking a rare breather from the hot, noisy business of melting and recycling jagged piles of scrap steel.

Steel deal

Nucor Steel-Berkeley says it's the largest recycler in South Carolina. It melted and refashioned about 2 million tons of steel in 2012. Here are some notable events in the company's history in the Lowcountry:

1995: Nucor picks Berkeley County for a $540 million, 600-worker steel mill on 2,000 acres of the former Hagan Plantation. Production begins in March 1997.

1996: Nucor pays $6 million the remaining 5,547 acres of the Hagan tract from Georgia-Pacific.

1997: Nucor says it will add a $50 million galvanizing line in Huger. Six weeks later, it announces it will build a $150 million, 200-worker beam-making plant at the mill.

1999: Nucor places 4,800 acres of its land under a conservation easement. It also says it will invest $85 million in two expansions to boost steel production in Huger.

2013: Nucor invests $130 million to modernize its mill to make stronger varieties of sheet steel that will be 10% wider (72 inches from 64 inches) and 30% thinner (down to 0.042 of an inch from 0.06 of an inch).

But its 930 workers aren't off galivanting on some year-end holiday,

The company is temporarily cooling its blazing hot electric furnaces in Berkeley County for about three weeks to accommodate a $130 million modernization program.

"The biggest amount of those dollars are being spent this month," said Giff Daughtridge, vice president and general manager of Nucor Steel Berkeley.

The bulk of the investment is going toward new equipment that will enable the mill to churn out thinner, wider and higher-grade varieties than what's rolled off the line in the past.

"Basically you are squishing more steel, and, therefore, much more horsepower is needed," Daughtridge said.

At the same time, the company is making other improvements to most of the rest of its plant. It's adding about 25 jobs to the local payroll to boot.

"This is a major investment for Nucor and the team in Berkeley ... is proud and excited to have earned this investment," Daughtridge said.

The project is the latest in a string of upgrades and expansions at the electric-powered steelmaking operation, which Nucor Corp. opened in 1997 on part of an 8,000-acre former hunting plantation between Cainhoy Road and the Cooper River.

Sealing that original $540 million investment, and the 600 high-paying jobs it promised, required some high-level arm twisting and politicking. For instance, the Charlotte-based Fortune 500 company complained publicly during the 1995 negotiations about unwanted incentives it was being offered by South Carolina. To appease the biggest sticking point - Nucor's concerns about its power costs - legislators in Columbia went as far as to change a state law allowing the mill operator to secure favorable rates from Santee Cooper.

It all came together March 2005, when Huger beat out a competing site in Virginia. The announcement marked a key turning point for the local economy, which was still reeling from the looming shutdown of the Navy base and shipyard in North Charleston. Almost overnight, expectations changed. A sense of optimism began to return. The region had pep in its step again.

The investment in Berkeley County has benefited the company as well. The Lowcountry mill is now Nucor's largest in terms of employment, assets, tons produced and revenue. Along with sheet steel, it also makes I-beams for the construction industry. Various satellite businesses that have set up shop around the mill employ bring ototal employment at the site to 1,500.

"Berkeley has been a great investment for Nucor, a real home-run," said veteran analyst Michelle Applebaum, founder and managing partner of Chicago-based Steel Market Intelligence.

Now, the company is looking to raise the mill's offerings a notch or two. New machinery will enable workers to crank out a higher-grade, higher-value steel that's wider, thinner and stronger.

"These expanded capabilities will provide profitable opportunities to move up the value chain in agricultural, pipe and tube, industrial equipment, heavy truck and automotive high-strength and ultra-high-strength applications," Nucor CEO John Ferriola said in a recent chat with financial analysts. "Customers are already inquiring about placing orders for these new products soon to enter production."

Applebaum, who was on that conference call, pointed out that Nucor's plan to cut off a bigger slice of the auto-manufacturing pie is particularly noteworthy. She said the vehicle sector "has been one of the strongest markets and remains a tight market in the U.S., even in this weaker economy."

"The growth in automotive demand in the U.S. - and Mexico - will like position Berkeley very well for future growth," Applebaum said in an email.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.