A woman dressed like a sheriff passed out wanted posters as heads of a South Carolina utility gathered April 12 to discuss the future of V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.
Leslie Minerd, nuclear activist and owner of Hip Wa Zee in Five Points, clad in a cowboy hat, boots, and denim vest with a sheriff’s star, handed out the wanted posters to executives of South Carolina Electric and Gas and its parent company, SCANA. The posters depicted the faces of members of the Public Service Commission emblazoned with the words “For conspiring with SC utilities to defraud ratepayers of Billions.” The Public Service Commission is a seven-member group appointed by the governor that regulates utility companies.
“Y’all seen any of these varmints?” she said. “They’re worse than any cattle rustlers or horse thieves.”
The meeting was an opportunity for SCE&G to lay out its options following the recently announced bankruptcy of Westinghouse, which is building the $14 billion nuclear plant. The plant has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. SCE&G owns 55 percent of V.C. Summer with state-run utility Santee Cooper holding the rest.
The meeting was a briefing, meaning there could be no input from the public. But prior to the meeting, representatives from The Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and SRS Watch spoke out against the continued construction of the nuclear power stations as well as the companies putting costs on customers.
Sara Barczak of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said that the average residential SCE&G customer has 18 percent of their energy bill, or about $27 a month, going towards the stalled reactors near Jenkinsville.
“I’m expecting most of my questions won’t be answered,” Barczak said. “I do hope that we don’t hear we’re going full steam with this project because that has a customer impact in which customers haven’t been able to voice their concern.”
The South Carolina Sierra Club’s attorney, Bob Guild, told reporters that his organization is filing legal action to require an open, transparent and fair process to decide the most economical way forward concerning V.C. Summer and other utility related issues.
“That means an opportunity for all citizens including Sierra Club and ratepayers to participate not as they’re doing today, where we’re sitting as an audience watching, but where we have legal rights to protect our interest,” Guild said. “We must have an energy system in South Carolina where we have a Public Service Commission that doesn’t rubber stamp rate hikes and cost overruns...where we have an Office of Regulatory Staff that actually represents the ratepayers.”
In front of the commission, SCANA and SCE&G presented their options for the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in light of Westinghouse’s bankruptcy.
Westinghouse is the lead contractor for the two Fairfield County nuclear reactors, which were noted to be near 34 percent complete. The two AP1000 reactors, the first nuclear power generators being built in the U.S. since 1979, have been underway since 2009.
Kevin Marsh, CEO of SCANA, said there’s a deadline of 2021 to complete the reactors but that in a 30-day interim period following the bankruptcy they’re considering whether to continue with construction, to focus on completing one reactor, or abandon the project entirely.
“All of the things being equal, our preference would be to complete the units for the benefits that they would provide on our system,” Marsh said.
SCE&G executive Jimmy Addison told the commission that SCANA stock has lost 18 percent of its value compared to its peers since the Westinghouse bankruptcy announcement and that rating agencies have put the Cayce-based utility on negative outlook or watch status.
This news also comes in the wake of Toshiba, owner of Westinghouse, planning to announce historic financial losses due to its U.S. nuclear business.
“While these implications have been significant, they have been substantially mitigated by the existence of the Base Load Review Act,” Addison said.
Passed in 2007, the Base Load Review Act grants SCE&G the power to charge ratepayers to finance projects such as V.C. Summer. Since the legislation, the Public Service Commission and Office of Regulatory Staff have approved customer rate increases by the utilities nine times in order to pay for the nuclear power station, according to The State. A 10th rate hike will be proposed in May, says Barczak.
SCE&G’s Addison praised the “fair and consistent application” of the law, saying, “It’s critically important that this approach continue.”
The latest figures predict about $14 billion is needed to complete the work at V.C. Summer. That’s 20 percent more than the original estimate, according to The Post and Courier. The reactors have already faced multi-year delays with 2019 and 2020 being the most recent projected operating dates for the two units.
Following the executives’ report, commissioners inquired about on-site components of the reactors, a possible schedule of completion, and a similar facility in China.
“How come no one said anything about ratepayers?” Minerd shouted out near the end of what was a fairly quiet hearing, prompting an officer to escort her out of her seat. “We could have clean energy and they shove this down our throats.”
Tom Clements, nuclear activist of SRS Watch, was equally frustrated by the commission.
“They didn’t mention ‘customer’ or ‘ratepayer’ one time during this,” he said. “The PSC is essentially devoid of interest in this project except what SCE&G wants them to know.”
Outside in the lobby Minerd had a couple more wanted posters to hand out.
“I thought it was absurd,” she said in her sheriff’s garb. “There’s no outlet for people to vent their frustration over this.”