Nuclear power plant suspension hurts; getting energy right is hard

Electricity is much more complicated than flipping a switch to light a room or power up a computer. We don’t think about electrical power in our homes and workplaces until it isn’t there because of an outage – or we learn we’re among utility customers who have paid $4.7 billion for two new nuclear reactors that likely won’t produce a watt of power.

Santee Cooper and South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. have suspended expansion of the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant in the central part of the state. Construction has been under way for nine years. The two utilities have spent about $9 billion, with a lot of the total coming from consumers through monthly bills - and the project is only a third finished.

For a generation or more, nuclear power plants across the United States have experienced tremendous cost overruns. Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility, says various problems, including Westinghouse requesting bankruptcy protection, increased Santee Cooper’s projected cost by 75 percent. “The costs of these units are simply too much for our customers to bear,” said board chairman Leighton Lord.

The fact is, Santee Cooper must repay money borrowed to expand the Fairfield County plant. The utility is going ahead with proposed rate increases unrelated to the now-suspended construction, so customers should not expect a refund.

The cost to consumers, via several rate increases, is one of the questions to be addressed by the Public Utilities Review Committee at a special meeting Aug. 23 in Columbia. Sen. Luke Rankin of Horry County requested the meeting after SCE&G and Santee Cooper abandoned the project.

“It is imperative that governmental and regulatory leaders determine how this happened and what led to this decision,” Rankin said.

Rankin seeks to “... determine how suspension of the project impacts our overall ability to have abundant, affordable, and dependable energy in the coming years.”

It’s a reasonable question and no doubt Santee Cooper and SCE&G leaders have reasonable answers. Everyone - homeowners, businesses, activists, politicians - should consider that abandoning the V.C. Summer project was a tough call.

Think of the devasting cost to Fairfield County, with the immediate loss of 5,000 construction jobs. Think about the not-so-long-ago demolition of the Granger plant in Conway, a coal-fired generating plant. In the bigger picture, consider the tens of thousands of jobs lost as the world relies less on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) and more on nuclear energy, the wind and the sun for electricity. Imagine the impact on a community in West Virginia, Kentucky or Illinois when a mine closes.

China is buying less coal from U.S. companies and other producers; that is one of the economic factors in the loss of jobs. It isn’t only mine jobs that are gone; hauling coal has been a major revenue source for U.S. railroads. So one wonders how many railroad jobs have been lost, and how many empty coal cars sit on sidings in various places.

And there are undeniable environmental benefits to less use of coal and oil. They are burned for heat (energy) to boil water and produce steam to drive generating turbines. Solar panels and wind turbines use nature’s energy. These so-called renewables now produce only five percent of S.C. electricity; nine nuclear generating plants make 55 percent.

Coastal areas like ours must accept that wind turbines in the Atlantic Ocean must ultimately figure more as sources of electricity. We should continue to resist efforts that could lead to extracting petroleum from under the ocean; testing can harm the ocean and its inhabitants – an incalculable cost to the area’s tourism economy.

Like so much of life these days, affordable, dependable electricity is complex, and it surely has its costs.

S.C. energy diversity

More than half of S.C. electricity is generated by nuclear power. Here are the energy sources and percentages:

Nuclear | 55 percent

Coal | 23 percent

Natural gas | 17 percent

Renewables | 5 percent

Source: Jeffrey C. Nelson, “It’s time to move past nuclear, focus on natural gas,” Palmetto Opinion, The Sun News, Aug. 1

S.C. Senate committee

What | Special meeting, S.C. Senate’s Public Utilities Review Committee

When | Aug. 23, 10:30 a.m.

Where | Room 105, Gressette Building, Columbia