Senate nuclear debate (copy) (copy)

South Carolina senators huddle in March while debating a plan that clips SCANA's nuclear charges for the abandoned V.C. Summer reactors. It took until the end of June to reach a compromise with the House of Representatives.

The glimmer of hope was all too short-lived. Last week, SCANA announced that it would slash quarterly dividends by about 80 percent, a sign that it might finally be willing to put the financial well-being of its thousands of captive customers over the continued enrichment of its shareholders.

But any goodwill that move might have generated was decisively undone on Monday, when SCANA subsidiary SCE&G sued in federal court to undo a temporary 15 percent electric rate reduction and other provisions state lawmakers approved last week.

Fortunately, everything that legislators passed is still moving forward — for now. That could change all too easily.

The lawsuit alleges that the state Legislature exceeded its constitutional authority in passing the temporary rate cut, which would undo most of what SCE&G customers pay in their monthly bills toward the two nuclear reactors that SCANA and project partner Santee Cooper abandoned roughly a year ago.

It also suggests that lawmakers cannot retroactively clarify the meaning of “prudent” in the now-defunct Base Load Review Act, the misguided law that got us into this $9 billion mess in the first place. But it shouldn’t take a particularly rigorous definition of the word “prudent” to understand that many of the decisions that SCANA and Santee Cooper took in continuing to work on the reactors despite repeated delays, construction problems and warnings of possible failure were anything but prudent.

Indeed, various pieces of evidence uncovered by The Post and Courier, as well as by environmental advocacy groups the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, suggest that SCANA and Santee Cooper sought to mislead investors and assuage state officials about the nuclear project’s many struggles over several years.

That’s not just imprudent. It might be criminal. State law enforcement officials are looking into it.

It’s worth noting as well that SCE&G officials have sought to gag the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth over their release of documents to the press and to the public. But given the scope of the nuclear failure and the thousands of South Carolina residents impacted, any and all information that can help make sense of this mess ought to be available for public scrutiny.

The Legislature never asserted the authority to cut SCE&G electric rates over the long-term. That power rests with the state Public Service Commission. And thanks to recently passed reforms that ought to ensure that state regulatory watchdogs prioritize consumers over utility profits, commissioners should have no qualms about slashing rates — permanently.

An official determination that SCANA acted imprudently could even force the utility to pay customers back for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have already invested in the failed nuclear project.

The Base Load Review Act only concerns SCANA in this case. As a state-owned utility, Santee Cooper plays by different rules. Unfortunately, with far fewer electric customers and no shareholders to fall back on, Santee Cooper may be even more vulnerable to the nuclear fallout.

For now, Santee Cooper customers pay a good bit less for their electricity than SCE&G ratepayers, but their long-term rates could skyrocket without legislative action. Lawmakers spent much of this year’s session debating how to help SCANA ratepayers. Santee Cooper should be a focus when the next session begins in January.

In the meantime, SCANA ought to rethink its strategy of antagonizing state lawmakers, public officials and even its own customers. The fight to protect South Carolina ratepayers is really just beginning.