COLUMBIA — SCANA Corp. may have misled state utility regulators about the existence of a secretive report that detailed construction failures at two troubled nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County, months before the $9 billion energy project was abandoned.
The director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff told The Post and Courier on Thursday that SCANA officials repeatedly told state agency employees they didn't have a copy of a report that was produced by Bechtel Corp., an engineering and project management company that observed the nuclear construction near Jenkinsville in past years.
"They have continued to ask for it," said Dukes Scott, the regulatory staff director. "As we asked for it, they never said, 'Yes, here it is.'"
Those state regulators were surprised last week when SCANA and Santee Cooper officials admitted under oath in a Senate hearing the document did exist, and they were again denied access to it by SCANA, who is now claiming it as legally privileged information.
Eric Boomhower, a communications director for SCANA, said the reason the company is treating the document as privileged information is because the investor-owned utility and Santee Cooper hired Bechtel in anticipation of suing Westinghouse, the designer of the reactors and the primary contractor at V.C. Summer.
"SCANA prefers to respect the legislative review process by not commenting on its actions in response to the report at this time," Boomhower added.
Santee Cooper, which isn't overseen by state utility regulators, didn’t respond to questions sent from the newspaper this week about the report.
Lawmakers on two special legislative committees in the S.C. House and Senate have requested the document. It reportedly points out problems with the reactors’ construction and offered recommendations of how to correct the nuclear build-out that was abandoned at the end of July.
The exact findings of the report are not known but lawmakers hope the previously undisclosed document will shed some light into why electric customers are paying for two unfinished nuclear reactors that are only 30 percent complete and lacked a legitimate construction schedule.
Roughly 5,000 workers were fired at V.C. Summer when investor-owned SCANA and state-run Santee Cooper pulled the plug on the decade-long construction effort that was supposed to usher in a new age of nuclear power in the United States.
But to this point, nobody outside the two partnering utilities has seen the report. Gov. Henry McMaster, who oversees the 11-member board of Santee Cooper, knew nothing of it before last week. Later Thursday, McMaster sent a letter to Santee Cooper Chairman Leighton Lord asking for a copy of the report immediately.
Members of the state’s regulatory staff heard about the report, compiled by Bechtel, the country’s largest construction and civil engineering company, through conversations with workers at the V.C. Summer site in past years. But when the utility watchdog agency inquired about the document, Scott said his staff was told by SCANA officials that the utility didn’t have a physical copy of any report.
SCANA employees informed state regulators that Bechtel had only orally communicated with them about the San Francisco-based company's work at V.C. Summer, Scott said.
Much is still unknown about Bechtel’s work, including who paid for the report, what date Bechtel started its analysis, when it was completed, who it was delivered to and what problems it pointed out.
The report was initiated after Santee Cooper, the minority owner of the now-canceled reactors, pushed to have a third-party company analyze the construction effort, according to Lord.
By that point, the project had already seen one temporary construction schedule after another fail and the total cost for the two reactors increase dramatically.
Lord didn't go into detail about what findings or recommendations were contained in the report, but he told The Post and Courier it led Santee Cooper's board to issue a call for an independent construction monitor at the V.C. Summer site.
SCANA, which was primarily in charge of building and starting the reactors, rejected the call to hire a third-party construction monitor, according to Santee Cooper’s chairman.
SCANA's failure to provide the state’s utility regulators with the report has raised questions from state lawmakers leading the special committees.
“Some things just aren’t quite adding up,” said Rep. Russell Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat who co-chairs the House committee. “If a report surfaces, then we are going to have a situation where we will have to find out who is telling the truth.”
SCANA and Santee Cooper have yet to hand over the report to senators and representatives investigating the nuclear plant debacle. But the committees have threatened to subpoena the document if the utilities don’t comply. The Senate asked for the utilities to hand over the document by Sept. 7.
"We understand the Senate committee has indicated they plan to issue a subpoena for production of this document," the House committee wrote in their letter to the utilities. "We would hope to avoid that process but are willing and able to issue our own subpoena if forced to."
The Post and Courier has requested the report through the state's Freedom of Information Act.
McMaster, who has been pushing for a sale of Santee Cooper since the reactors were cancelled last month, said he's asked the state-run utility to produce whatever documents lawmakers need to investigate the reactors' failure.
"We've asked Santee Cooper to be forthcoming with information," McMaster said. "There are some things by law or agreement they can do, some things they can't, but our intention is to get every piece of information that would be of any interest at all to these people, these companies who are interested in purchasing some or all of Santee Cooper or entering into any other kind of agreement."