Little of what we learned from the recent deposition of Ken Browne, who helped oversee work on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project, could be considered new information. That doesn’t make it any less troubling.
Mr. Browne’s sworn statement as part of a class-action lawsuit against SCANA offers yet another inside perspective of what increasingly appears to have been a conscious effort on the part of the utility company’s leaders to keep state regulators and investors in the dark about mounting challenges facing the multibillion-dollar reactor project.
“The health of the project was not good,” Mr. Browne said in his deposition, according to a report on Thursday by The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown and Thad Moore. “But if you read in the reports, the health of the project was always good, a positive outlook.”
Mr. Browne’s account would seem to confirm the narrative gleaned from hundreds of SCANA corporate emails and other documents released earlier this month by the state Office of Regulatory Staff, a watchdog agency.
In those documents, SCANA officials, attorneys and staff members debated, among other things, whether and how to keep a critical report from going public. That report, by the engineering firm Bechtel, was only released at the demand of Gov. Henry McMaster after SCANA and project partner Santee Cooper had already abandoned construction on the reactors.
Ever since construction stopped last year, SCANA ratepayers have wondered how much more they would have to pay for reactors that would never generate electricity. Only in June did state lawmakers pass a temporary rate cut that slashed the surcharge in monthly bills that customers had been paying toward the nuclear project.
For longer-term relief, the question is how much of the $9 billion spent on the abandoned reactors was “prudent.” The more information that comes to light, the less prudent things seem.
To that end, Circuit Judge John Hayes is weighing whether to require SCANA to repay the roughly $2 billion customers have already contributed to its reactor project and make lower rates permanent.
We believe ratepayers merit the fullest possible relief.
It’s nevertheless important to proceed with caution. In past discussions over rate cuts, SCANA has threatened that overly punitive action could push it toward bankruptcy, which could disrupt the state economy and leave customers paying even higher rates at the end of the day.
However, SCANA’s continuing profitability undermines that narrative. Even with the 15 percent rate cut legislators passed this summer, SCANA reported net income for the third quarter of this year totaling $67 million. That’s actually an increase from the same period last year.
In other words, they can probably afford to give their customers a break.
And given the steady trickle of damning evidence that keep emerging from the ongoing investigation into the nuclear failure, they’re not likely to have much choice.