A decade ago, utilities were persuading politicians around the country to let them spend big to go nuclear. Expanding nuclear energy capacity was a sure bet, they said: Natural gas prices were rising, energy needs skyrocketing, and the federal government was poised to cripple carbon-emitting fossil fuel plants. With a dozen or more nuclear power projects being developed around the nation, cost savings could be found through simultaneous construction. State legislators were sold. In South Carolina, they even passed a law allowing utilities to charge customers up front and to recoup their investments even if the projects never produced a kilowatt. Several other Southern states also passed "pay-as-you-go" laws.
This week, having spent more than $10 billion, executives with South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper acknowledged that all their assumptions were wrong. Worse still: Consumers may have to pay billions more on the rusting remains of two partially-built reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station north of Columbia.
"When we started, there was talk of a nuclear renaissance restarting a whole industry in the U.S.," said Santee Cooper's chief financial officer, Jeff Armfield. He was among several executives recommending the project be abandoned. The board of the state-owned utility unanimously agreed at a public meeting Monday.
Most of the 18 nuclear projects pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a decade ago have been aborted or suspended indefinitely. None of the 7 projects the NRC licensed are operational. Only one is still being built, in Georgia, at a cost of $100 million a month. Southern Company financial documents filed Wednesday say the project, slated to cost $14 billion, could cost $25 billion or more if completed.