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Santee Cooper says it got no responses to a letter it sent dozens of utilities asking if they wanted to buy a piece of its project to build two reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County. File/Provided

Duke Energy, Southern Co. and Dominion Energy are three of the four electric utilities that want to buy state-owned Santee Cooper, The Post and Courier learned Monday.

The identity of the fourth utility remains unknown, but a source with knowledge of the talks said the three Southeastern-based power companies approached by Gov. Henry McMaster in August were still in the mix as formal negotiations began.

Utilities had until Sunday to submit their interest in purchasing Santee Cooper to the governor’s office, winnowing the field of buyers for one of the state's most valuable assets. Still, hurdles remain: Formal bids will come later and selling the Moncks Corner-based power provider would require legislative approval.

Those three utilities are among the biggest energy providers in the Southeast. Charlotte-based Duke is the South Carolina’s largest utility with 733,000 customers in the Upstate and Pee Dee. Dominion, based in Richmond, Va., runs gas pipelines that snake through the state.

And Atlanta-based Southern is building a pair of nuclear reactors near Augusta, a project that mimics the Fairfield County project that Santee Cooper and its partner South Carolina Electric & Gas abandoned in July. Some South Carolina leaders hold out hope that a new owner of Santee Cooper would restart the project stopped midway after spending $9 billion.

Dominion and Southern declined to comment on the negotiations, while Duke didn't respond to a request for comment. Santee Cooper serves about 2 million customers statewide, mostly through the power it sells to the state's 20 electric cooperatives.

The governor’s office likewise declined to give details on the negotiations, which McMaster says he’s pursuing in an effort to either finish the reactors or pay off the debt Santee Cooper racked up building them. Santee Cooper has about $8 billion in debt, more than half of which is tied to the project.

"The governor is continuing to work with companies interested in purchasing some or all of Santee Cooper, and he remains solely focused on what is best for ratepayers and South Carolina taxpayers," spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement. "To preserve the integrity of the process, any details of ongoing conversations will remain confidential at this time."

While the governor's office is focused on selling all of Santee Cooper, the utility has worked for almost two months to find a buyer for its 45 percent interest in the two unfinished nuclear reactors.

Lonnie Carter, the utility's outgoing chief executive, wrote nearly 50 utilities and investors in August about joining the V.C. Summer nuclear project, asking them to respond by Sept. 15 if they wanted in. They included small, city-owned power companies and behemoth Southeastern energy companies.

The utility's letter "didn’t generate any responses," Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said Monday.

The lack of interest in buying a piece of the nation’s first new nuclear power plant in decades casts further doubt on the prospects of reviving the project.

The possibility of selling Santee Cooper spilled into the 2018 governor’s race Monday as McMaster’s main Republican primary challengers said they didn’t support selling the New Deal-era power company in aftermath of one of the state’s biggest financial meltdowns in recent memory.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, who is challenging the governor in next year’s primary, wrote in a Post and Courier op-ed Monday that the state risked selling one of its largest assets “at the bottom of the market,” a move he called a “knee-jerk reaction.”

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Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, another candidate in the Republican primary, agreed, saying that she feared the state would be stuck with Santee Cooper’s debt.

"You never sell a company when it’s rocked back on its heels," Templeton said. "You never have a fire sale and get what you deserve from it."

McMaster’s office didn’t respond to questions about the criticism.

Still, the future of Santee Cooper could become even more of a political football in the coming months as the governor’s race intensifies and two legislative committees investigate the failed project along with the State Law Enforcement Division and U.S. Attorney's Office.

The credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s wrote Friday that it didn't think a buyout deal would make it to the finish line, even as it faces "high debt levels" and "legal and political fallout" tied to the V.C. Summer project. Among the political concerns is that a for-profit owner could lead to higher costs for South Carolinians who get power from the state-run utility and the cooperatives it supplies.

"For legal, economic, and political reasons, we do not believe that this will be attainable," analysts Jeffrey Panger and David Bodek wrote. "But that it is even being explored speaks to significant ratepayer animus and the potential that the issue will be further politicized."

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.