DON'T USE Unless it's for July 8

Just over a third of the V.C. Summer nuclear project had been built when construction ceased last summer, but by then, more than 90 percent of the power plant's material had been purchased. High Flyer/Provided

CHARLOTTE — With the steel South Carolina wasted here, you could stitch together most of an NFL stadium. You could build the first 20-odd floors of the Chrysler Building. You could construct 15 or so roadside hotels.

To buy this much steel would be no easy feat: It would take South Carolina’s largest steel mill, in rural Berkeley County, a little over three days and three nights to roll out this many beams in one shot. Even the nation’s biggest mill — an industrial behemoth in Indiana — couldn’t fill an order this big in a single shift.

Which is all to say, South Carolina wasted an awful lot of steel here. Its utilities placed a huge order with a company called SteelFab when they were still planning to build a pair of nuclear reactors near Columbia, and they left 7,468 tons of the stuff to rust in suburban Charlotte once their plans went belly-up.

For years, most of it sat on a big steel yard out by the airport, where new subdivisions bleed into manufactured housing and incoming jets roar above the tree line. Even more was scattered throughout yards and warehouses in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi.

It didn’t get there overnight. It piled up higher and higher as work on the V.C. Summer power plant slipped further and further behind schedule. Construction slowed to a crawl, but the plant’s contractors kept ordering the parts they’d eventually need, long before they needed them.

They had built just over a third of the power plant when they called off work last summer. By then, they’d bought more than 90 percent of its pieces.

Like most of the parts, the steel stacked up around Charlotte isn’t good for much now. Nuclear power plants call for specialized equipment, and South Carolina was building first-of-their-kind reactors, betting on a nuclear renaissance in America. The market for leftover parts is as good as nonexistent — unless someone else decides to build a nuclear plant.

That leaves the state’s utilities with a question that’s as real as the massive piles of steel in Charlotte, which threatened to choke out the company that assembled them. It’s as real as the valves and pumps and sundry parts that fill a pair of warehouses the size of eight football fields outside Columbia:

Should they hold out hope?

***

The steel in Charlotte mirrors the story of how South Carolina’s nuclear hopes slipped away in the first place.

It started piling up in 2014, only a year after the first concrete was poured at V.C. Summer. The project had slipped behind schedule, and there was no more room at the massive construction site in rural Fairfield County to store the metal SteelFab was stitching together.

The project’s contractors, Westinghouse Electric and Chicago Bridge & Iron, started to turn the steel delivery trucks away. The contractors asked if they could keep some of their steel in Charlotte for a while. It wouldn’t be there more than a year, they promised.

SteelFab agreed, and so began a years-long dance — moving steel around to make room for other customers’ orders, navigating through acres of space clogged by delays that grew and grew.

Just storing it became a logistical nightmare: It takes up more than 40 acres in all. It’s as if the main loop of Charleston’s Hampton Park was covered end to end with stacks of steel or if Columbia’s Finlay Park was filled twice over.

+1 
IMG_5435.JPG

SteelFab's facility in Charlotte covers dozens of acres near the airport. Steel stitched together for the V.C. Summer project covered half the yard, gumming up the company's operations there. Thad Moore/Staff

As one year became four, SteelFab dug in deeper: It rented a lot in Gastonia, it bought land in Georgia, and it asked its suppliers to hold onto metal in places like Illinois and Mississippi. All that was fine until Westinghouse went bankrupt and stopped paying its bills. The company says in court filings that its storage bill has tallied up bit by bit, another $821.92 every day. It says Westinghouse owes about $1 million in all.

It pleaded with Westinghouse and a federal judge to stanch the losses. SteelFab is stuck with only one slice of South Carolina’s massive nuclear leftovers, but it devised an elegant solution to its steel problems: Melt it all down.

“The steel has no value, other than what it will yield in the scrap market,” the company told the bankruptcy judge overseeing Westinghouse’s case. “The project has been abandoned, and the steel has been abandoned by the project owners.”

SteelFab’s chief executive, Glenn Sherrill, declined to answer questions about its plans for the steel. He said he feared violating an agreement with Westinghouse.

But his attorney, Michael Beal, suggested the metal would soon be bound for the steel mill: “We have worked out the deal,” he said. “We are now implementing it.”

Sooner or later, acres of steel in Charlotte will be piled into furnaces, poured into vats of molten metal. And one corner of South Carolina’s nuclear project will be resolved for good.

***

The rest of the nuclear leftovers won’t be resolved so easily. After nearly a year of deliberation, the reactors’ parts are bound for the auction block — eventually.

South Carolina Electric & Gas has already written off the parts as a loss, hoping to land billions of dollars in tax savings. Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility and part owner in the project, says it will hold onto them for a while. It told federal regulators last month that it would to do so to maintain some of the parts “for potential future re-sale.”

Santee Cooper told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it’s planning to preserve “certain high value components,” things like generators and the metal tanks that hold enriched uranium. But packed into their warehouses, the utilities own an enormous amount of equipment and parts, all the way down to valves an inch wide, all packed into long rows of crates.

Together, it makes up “basically two nuclear reactors, in parts,” said Ryder Thompson, manager of nuclear programs at the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state’s utility watchdog agency. Santee Cooper says there are 300,000 items in all.

“It’s all the same equipment that’s been there a long time,” Thompson said.

Inside those boxes and across the construction site are dozens more stories of suppliers stuck in the lurch. Like the Connecticut company still waiting to be repaid for thousands of bags of concrete and grout, or the Alabama firm that went to court with dozens of unpaid invoices for everything that made the site hum — drills and saws, chisels and trowels.

The bankruptcy court is expected to make them whole by selling Westinghouse to a private equity firm in Canada, but the deal isn’t final yet. In the meantime, SCE&G and Santee Cooper are in court, fending off unpaid bills worth a quarter-billion dollars.

But the stuff itself will outlast the legal wrangling. The utilities are clearing out their warehouses around Columbia and squeezing all the parts onto their construction site, a process that will take a couple of months. It took a crane and 375 truck trips just to make room on site, and it’ll take another 300 trips to move the rest.

Once it’s there, it could sit indefinitely, until a buyer emerges or Santee Cooper gives up hope.

Their bet is that it will be worth something one day: By one estimate, the parts could be worth something like $861 million on the resale market. That’s enough to put a dent in the $9 billion tab SCE&G and Santee Cooper racked up working on the project — if someone’s willing to buy.

And that all hinges on whether there’s a future anywhere for big nuclear power plants.

***

The parts will stay in Fairfield County indefinitely, until someone needs the guts of a new Westinghouse reactor. That could be a while because there are only two Westinghouse reactors being built on the planet.

They’re both in Georgia, just south of Augusta, and South Carolina’s utilities have already sold their owners about $2 million worth of leftovers — things like rebar and steel plates. Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore says the utility is “continuing to explore options related to the rest.”

The outlook for new Westinghouse reactors is hardly bright. The company was forced into bankruptcy by its nuclear construction business. SCE&G is being sold because its bet on the technology busted so dramatically. Santee Cooper is on the block, too.

But the hopes haven’t been snuffed out yet: Saudi Arabia is interested in building a pair of nuclear reactors. The Trump administration is pushing it to consider American nuclear designers like Westinghouse, which is headquartered outside Pittsburgh and wants to hire Texas-based Fluor to build reactors. Bloomberg reports that a decision is expected in December.

In a way, Santee Cooper is making a side bet on their bid. It plans to pay Fluor $8 million over the next six months to maintain parts from V.C. Summer. Santee Cooper wouldn’t say whether Fluor’s involvement in the Saudi project factored into its selection, but it’s banking on the American companies’ success all the same.

If they don’t get the job, there might never be a market for new Westinghouse parts.

But if they do, South Carolina’s nuclear parts could end up far from Jenkinsville, the spot on the map north of Columbia where they are now. They could pump out power for the Arabian Peninsula instead of the Charleston peninsula, in the desert near Qatar and the Persian Gulf.

And South Carolina’s last bet on the future of nuclear power would be done with.

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