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Documents obtained from Santee Cooper show there was a mountain of work, time and money needed to actually complete two nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County when the power plants were abandoned in July 2017. Provided

Nine years into their effort to build two new nuclear reactors, SCANA and Santee Cooper officials were confronted this summer with a painful reality: billions of dollars from ratepayers had taken them only so far.

Newly-obtained emails, letters and other documents show: 

• Finishing the project would require at least 23 million man hours of additional work.

• The project would cost $13 billion more than the initial budget called for in 2009.

• It would take four to six more years than what SCANA told state utility regulators last year.

These and other revelations are in documents The Post and Courier obtained from Santee Cooper through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Taken together, they reveal a behind-the-scenes story of frustration and uncertainty. 

They show how officials papered over these problems in public, and the documents raise fresh questions about why it took so long for SCANA and Santee Cooper to realize the seriousness of their project’s problems. Or for state regulators to question the project's obvious shortcomings.

Nuclear phoenix?

Long before it turned into a boondoggle, the VC Summer plant was supposed to herald a nuclear renaissance.

SCANA and Santee Cooper had hired Westinghouse, which had long touted its reactors as "the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available."

With two new reactors next to the existing one at VC Summer, SCANA and Santee Cooper hoped to generate decades of electricity practically free of carbon emissions.

Construction began in 2009. And by 2016, more than 5,000 welders, electricians and other workers were at the site near Jenkinsville.

But virtually unknown outside the offices of SCANA and Santee Cooper, top executives were talking about the project's viability and the finances of its contractor, Westinghouse, and its parent company, the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba Corp.

During the summer of 2016, for instance, a SCANA official told Lonnie Carter, Santee Cooper's president and chief executive officer, they planned to hire a bankruptcy attorney because of their contractor's financial issues, according to one email.

That didn't stop Santee Cooper officials from trying to craft a more positive spin.

One "talking point" email in June 2016 gave Carter tips to answer questions about the plant.

If asked about the VC Summer plant's expansion, the document suggested Carter say how the project "hit several milestones this summer. Making tremendous progress — starting to look like operating plant."

The document urged Carter to mention how Westinghouse had brought in a new construction partner, Fluor Corp., and that doing so "makes a strong team stronger." 

Another memo included a script for "media day" last September, counseling Carter to tell the public and reporters, "We cannot overstate the importance of these two units to South Carolina,” and "We have a powerful opportunity to improve prosperity and quality of life across South Carolina.”

By December 2016, state regulators asked harder questions about the long-absent construction schedule for the reactors as word began to spread that Toshiba suffered huge losses because of Westinghouse's nuclear work.

In a letter to SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh, Dukes Scott, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff, said it was now “imperative” that ORS get the​ schedule so they could properly monitor the project.

“It is difficult for ORS to do our job, and for SCE&G to do its due diligence as an owner without timely access to this critical information regarding budget and schedule risks," he wrote.

Turning point

By then, relations between the utility and their contractor had grown colder.

In March, as Westinghouse veered towards bankruptcy, another bombshell was dropped: Westinghouse didn't have the full construction schedule after all.

SCANA and Santee Cooper's leaders were adamant that Westinghouse's executives had lied to them. But a separate audit by San Francisco-based Bechtel more than a year earlier showed the utilities didn't have the necessary oversight to catch problems with the construction.

Soon, the two utilities were studying whether to cancel the project.

Their options were limited.

By the end of April, only 35 percent of the construction had been completed, one internal progress report said. Engineers had yet to finish the design work, though the report said they were close — about 96 percent complete.

Potentially more troublesome: the project already had 90 percent of its materials delivered, raising the possibility that if the project was abandoned, many supplies would go to waste.

The news grew worse by the week. In a June 2 email Carter described as "highly confidential," he told Santee Cooper board members that completion dates for both units had been moved back four years.

By early July, Carter and his team had seen enough. They were certain the project couldn't continue. They were walking away from the $9 billion failure before it grew any larger. 

The only chance the reactors had, Carter told his board, was a bailout from another utility or the federal government. 

They had a meeting scheduled for July 18 at the White House and they had some numbers prepared to show President Donald Trump's administration. It was their last chance. 

But not even Santee Cooper's vice president of nuclear energy believed those cost estimates and completion dates were correct. 

"The number is accurate to test federal waters on sticker shock," Michael Crosby, Santee Cooper's senior vice president of nuclear energy, told Carter. 

That test failed. 

Blowhole?

As the utility executives wrestled with the decision to drop the reactors, both companies and their contractors were sharing harshly-worded emails.

“Our experience with Westinghouse since … 2008 has been set in a trend of continuous deceit and non-transparency," Carter wrote to Westinghouse’s top executive, Jose Gutierrez, in a May 1 letter. 

Crosby, Santee Cooper's nuclear lead, called former Westinghouse CEO Danny Roderick a “blowhole” in an email to Carter on May 5. 

In a June 12 call, Marsh and Carter both complained to the chairmen of Toshiba and Westinghouse that Roderick had intentionally lied to the utilities about having a schedule for the reactors. 

What had started out as a plan to put South Carolina on the leading edge of nuclear power in the United States devolved into insults being traded back and forth. 

"Toshiba continues to have a culture issue with being forth right in its business dealings. We should continue to be very guarded," Carter told his board after talking with Toshiba's chief executive officer at one point.  

As Santee Cooper prepared to announce the high-profile cancellation of the Westinghouse reactors, Carter, who has since retired, received another set of talking points.

If asked how he felt about Westinghouse, the memo suggested he simply say: “Westinghouse has failed to perform according to terms of the contract."

David Wren and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.

 
 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.