pc-061117-ne-nuclear (copy)

An aerial view of the V.C. Summer construction site in Jenkinsville, where two nuclear reactors were abandoned by by Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas. An internal analysis by Westinghouse, the project's primary contractor, showed the company wasn't prepared to built four new nuclear reactors in South Carolina and neighboring Georgia. Provided/SCE&G 

Last year, months before South Carolina’s V.C. Summer project went belly up, a senior Westinghouse executive reportedly was demoted and sent to Canada after he identified problems with a key contractor, a nuclear industry trade publication says.

Nuclear Intelligence Weekly said in a recent report that Steve Hamilton, a senior vice president with Westinghouse Electric, filed federal whistleblower claims amid what the trade publication described as a high-stakes corporate “soap opera.”

The report adds to a growing body of allegations that Westinghouse ignored or hid early warning signs the nuclear projects were in trouble long before the problems were made public. 

This trouble has since morphed into a chain reaction of political and economic uncertainty: Acquisition-hungry monopolies are circling around SCANA and Santee Cooper, and ratepayers are on the hook for billions of dollars for a pair of unfinished reactors.

Hamilton was a key player in Westinghouse’s nuclear team during the construction of new reactors at V.C. Summer — a senior vice president and chief quality officer in the company’s Pennsylvania headquarters, according to a company press release.

But then Toshiba — Westinghouse’s parent company — reportedly directed Hamilton to investigate Westinghouse’s purchase of Stone & Webster, its construction subsidiary working on the V.C. Summer project, the trade publication said. Both the V.C. Summer expansion in Fairfield County and a twin reactor project in Georgia had numerous delays and costly overruns.

Hamilton reportedly brought in a team of independent forensic experts to identify what went wrong with the Stone & Webster purchase and aftermath, but Hamilton’s report and its findings were buried, the publication said. Nuclear Intelligence Weekly did not specify details of Hamilton's findings. 

Hamilton is now on a special assignment to “build the company’s commercial and operational footprint in Canada,” according to another Westinghouse press release last May. Hamilton did not return phone calls and emails from The Post and Courier seeking comment.

Hamilton filed com­plaints under a federal whistleblower law to both the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Labor, the trade publication said. Both agencies said they don’t comment on whistleblower complaints or the status of any investigations.

The complaint reportedly alleges that Jose Gutierrez, Westinghouse’s chief executive officer, unsuccessfully pressured Hamilton to change the audit team’s findings, the publication reported.

Hamilton also reportedly made allegations about improprieties at the company’s fuel fabrication facility in Columbia, not far from the V.C. Summer site. The plant employs about 1,000 people and makes uranium fuel assemblies for use in nuclear plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission temporarily shut down the plant in 2016 after more than 220 pounds of enriched uranium were found in a ventilation scrubber. In noting its concerns, the NRC wrote about “a perceived lack of a questioning attitude may have resulted in delays” in identifying the uranium build-up problem.

Westinghouse declined to comment.

The allegations highlight a pattern of stumbles and deception that led to the $9 billion nuclear boondoggle in South Carolina and billions of dollars in overruns at the Vogtle project in Georgia.

Last year, The Post and Courier reported that another Westinghouse official wrote an in-depth analysis in 2011 that identified risky construction strategies and shortcuts, including the use of unlicensed engineers. The analysis predicted massive overruns, a prediction that came true and eventually led to the project’s collapse.

The project’s failure has shaken the state, leading to resignations of top SCANA and Santee Cooper executives and calls for major changes in legislation that shifted construction costs onto ratepayers.

SCANA and Santee Cooper, the utilities that hoped to build two new reactors, are now considered takeover targets. Virginia’s Dominion Energy hopes to pick up SCANA, and NextEra reportedly is eyeing Santee Cooper. Westinghouse remains in bankruptcy.

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Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme