Senate nuclear debate

South Carolina senators huddle in between debating a plan that clips SCANA's nuclear charges for V.C. Summer. Staff/Andrew Brown 

This will make you go nuclear faster than Chernobyl.

More than a quarter of the $2 billion that SCE&G has jacked from customers to build nuclear plants has instead gone directly into the pockets of shareholders.

Take your blood pressure meds, it gets worse.

A new financial study commissioned by the state Senate found that SCANA — SCE&G’s parent company — has been crying bankruptcy while paying out dividends higher than 75 percent of comparable utilities.

In fact, not long after SCANA officials discovered grievous problems with the V.C. Summer nuclear plant project, they dramatically increased quarterly dividends to investors.

These findings have lit a fire under once-reticent senators, who now want to roll back SCE&G electricity rates. But the study only confirmed what House members already knew.

“I can’t believe anything SCANA tells us,” says state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston. “When a company has financial difficulties, usually dividends are the first thing cut. But SCANA has doubled down, paying their shareholders and sticking it to South Carolina ratepayers.”

That is the informed assessment of the man who led the House investigation into this fiasco. And he’s absolutely right.

So, are you ready for the really bad news?

If lawmakers can’t get past some fundamental differences of opinion pretty quick, everyone in the state will continue to lose.

Except, of course, SCANA shareholders.

Fraud?

On Wednesday night, senators stayed up past their bedtimes to debate SCANA’s fate.

And it was about time.

The House passed a bill in January that would force the utility to quit charging customers for two plants it has no intention of finishing. But the Senate has urged caution, and not without some reason.

Senators feared electricity rates would climb even higher if the state drives SCANA into bankruptcy. Rolling back nuclear debt payments might scare off Dominion Energy, which wants to the buy the utility. And they also worried the state might get sued and lose.

Of course, most of these ideas have been planted by SCANA lobbyists which, as McCoy says, House members have been hesitant to believe.

Now armed with a new report, which only confirmed what state regulators have said, many senators have chucked their hesitation.

The report, from Washington-based financial consulting firm Bates White, said South Carolina Electric & Gas could cut its rates by 13 percent — and perhaps more — without fiscal distress. So Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, has suggested cutting the utility's rates by exactly that much.

That, he says, would allow SCANA to make its credit card payments and nothing else. In other words, it would cut out those obscene dividend payments at a time of crisis.

A majority of senators are going along with him for now. But others say that’s not good enough; they want to go nuclear on the company, like House members, and eliminate all charges for V.C. Summer.

“I don’t think we should subsidize fraud in this state,” Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Great Falls, said.

And that is increasingly what all this sounds like.

No time for standoffs

Here’s the problem.

The House passed legislation that would force SCE&G to cut rates by 18 percent, which erases all the charges customers pay for nuke plant debt.

The Senate is leaning toward the more modest 13 percent cut, which their new study suggests is reasonable. But there’s no guarantee the House will go along with that.

Even if lawmakers reach an accord, Gov. Henry McMaster says he will veto any legislation that doesn’t completely eliminate nuclear plant charges from SCE&G bills.

Call that election-year grandstanding, as some do, but the governor has a really good point. SCANA knew its nuclear project was falling apart for years, yet hid the evidence from state regulators, gave executives $21 million in performance bonuses — ha — and dished out $529 million in dividends.

Why should we reward that reckless, if not criminal, behavior? As Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, says, we didn’t do this to SCANA; they did it to themselves. Yep.

But unless lawmakers — who rarely agree on the color of the sky — can settle their differences on a complex problem, we will be the ones who pay.

It’s enough to make you go nuclear.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.