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Companies building failed S.C. nuclear project 'were looking to cut corners' as state’s top cops asked to investigate

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina's attorney general and House of Representatives have asked the State Law Enforcement Division to open a criminal investigations into the utilities that wasted $9 billion in a failed attempt to build two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. 

The requests to open a state probe come less than a week after SCANA and Santee Cooper announced they were subpoenaed for records by the U.S. Attorney's Office and a Post and Courier investigation discovered Westinghouse, the primary contractor at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, used unlicensed workers to design the nuclear reactors — a potentially criminal offense. 

State law enforcement officials would investigate whether Westinghouse and SCANA violated the state's engineering laws, said Robert Kittle, a spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Wilson's office sent a letter to SLED Chief Mark Keel on Friday asking him to appoint agents to investigate the cancellation of the reactors at V.C. Summer after receiving information that raised concerns about "possible criminal violations of various types." 

House Speaker Jay Lucas and leaders of a special committee investigating the decade-long construction effort sent a letter to Keel on Monday requesting his officers look into the project and investor-owned SCANA. 

House leaders wrote they have come to believe the collapse of the project "is a direct result of misrepresentation by SCANA and SCE&G," as well as possible "criminal fraud through the concealment of material information."

"If, as we suspect, criminal activity exists at the root of the V.C. Summer disaster, it is imperative that it be discovered as quickly as possible and that those responsible are held accountable for their actions," they wrote.

Russell Ott, the Democratic vice chair of the special House nuclear project panel, said The Post and Courier's report, as well as a story in The State newspaper about potential insider trading, contributed to the House's decision to send the letter. The leaders of Cayce-based SCANA were aware of the unlicensed construction documents as far back as 2012.

"They were looking to cut corners,” Ott said in an interview.

SCANA had received the letter about the SLED investigation and would cooperate, utility spokesman Eric Boomhower said in a statement. SLED did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

The utilities abandoned the project after spending $9 billion, leaving more than 5,000 workers without jobs and ratepayers to cover the costs for decades. The expansion was hampered by construction delays and cost overruns and was derailed by the bankruptcy filing of Westinghouse. An audit completed last year and released this month found waste and mismanagement at the construction site.

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The House and Senate have begun lengthy hearings where SCANA's executives, under oath, have been questioned and scolded over their actions throughout the past decade. The House members won't be inviting the leaders of SCANA and its subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas, back to the Statehouse to testify and will cut off all contact with the utility, according to the letter.

But the leaders of the House special committee said they will continue to seek answers from state-owned utility Santee Cooper, the minority owner of the unfinished reactors.

House leaders told the SLED chief in the letter that lawmakers are prepared to turn over any materials that may be helpful to an investigation, including video of all the hearings. 

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said The Post and Courier's investigation provided a "plausible explanation" of why the drawings and construction effort were so flawed. Massey, a co-chair of the special Senate committee investigating the reactors, said not having professional engineers design the nuclear plants raised a lot of questions about the project's entire viability.

“If you are making the type of investment that the utilities were making in this plant, don’t you want to know it's going to work?" Massey said.  “It seems like every day there is something more troubling about this situation, and the more we look into it, the worse it gets."

Asked about possible SLED investigation, Gov. Henry McMaster said he supported the multiple investigations taking place. But he repeatedly said his "main goal" is trying to get the construction of the reactors restarted. 

"There are a lot of investigations going on and questions being asked by legislative committees and even the U.S.

Attorney’s Office," McMaster said at an event in Ridgeville on Monday. "I think we would all be well-served by having answers to what happened and why it happened and just let nature take its course on that." 

The Republican governor said he wasn't ready to criticize SCANA or Westinghouse for the unlicensed construction drawings that were used at V.C. Summer. 

"I like to get all the information on something before making a judgment," McMaster said. "I’m informed about the newspaper’s story but there are a lot of facts and answers that need to be produced and I’m looking to get information about what went on just like everybody else in the state."

David Wren contributed to this report. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.