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State regulators may cut off customer payments for two unfinished nuclear reactors that were being built by South Carolina Electric and Gas, a subsidiary of Cayce-based SCANA. 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Electric & Gas pushed back against a request by state utility regulators to stop electric customers from paying for two unfinished nuclear reactors in Fairfield County that were abandoned in July. 

SCE&G filed a motion Thursday calling any effort to halt customer payments to the company "illegal and unconstitutional." 

The dispute is likely to set up a high-stakes legal battle between the utility's lawyers and the state's regulatory staff that will decide whether customers or the company have to pay for the failed $9 billion energy project. 

If the payments to the utility are canceled, SCE&G's attorneys have argued it would no longer be able to supply power to the 718,000 electric customers it serves in South Carolina. 

The state's seven-member Public Utility Commission met Thursday to discuss whether the ongoing payments for the reactors at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station should be canceled for SCE&G customers.

After less than 10 minutes, the commission ruled that they would schedule hearings on the issue in the near future. 

The state Public Service Commission's decision comes less than a day after members of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, the state's utility watchdog, advocated to end monthly customer charges for the partially complete plant.

That motion marked the first time that the watchdog agency has asked utility commission members to reduce the amount of money being charged to customers since 2009, when the project was first approved. 

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Office of Regulatory Staff also said they could push the utility commission to claw back nearly $1.8 billion already paid by ratepayers since work on the nuclear project started. 

State watchdogs argued SCE&G officials didn't share a 2016 audit that pointed out major problems at the nuclear construction site. They also relied heavily on a recently-released legal opinion from the South Carolina Attorney General's office that questioned the legitimacy of the 2007 law that enabled the utility to charge customers during construction of the yet-untested nuclear plants. 

SCE&G, a subsidiary of Cayce-based SCANA Corp., has told state lawmakers investigating the nuclear plant cancellation that it would continue to charge customers for the unfinished reactors and would request state regulators add another $2 billion to $4 billion that has yet to be collected. 

But if the utility commissioners cut off the flow of cash to SCE&G and its parent SCANA, it is likely to send the investor-owned utility's stock price diving even further. In recent weeks, SCANA stock has dropped by more than $10 per share. 

The stock price dip has been fed by the rate rollback request and announcements that federal and state law enforcement officials opened investigations into SCANA and its failed attempt to construct two Westinghouse-designed reactors over the past decade. SCE&G and its partner, state-owned Santee Cooper, abandoned the project in July after Westinghouse, the primary contractor, declared bankruptcy. 

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