Guest editorial: ‘Disclose or not’ memo suggests S.C. nuclear project cover-up

September 6, 2018

“Disclose or not.”

That’s the question Santee Cooper officials raised in 2015 before contracting firm Bechtel finished an audit of the nuclear reactors the state-run utility was working on with project partner SCANA and its subsidiary, SCE&G.

According to an analysis of documents uncovered by Post and Courier reporters Thad Moore and Andrew Brown, Santee Cooper leaders were referring to whether or not the information in the report should be shared with the utility’s bondholders.

Their decision, of course, was not to disclose.

We know this because the Bechtel report’s existence was only revealed after construction on the two nuclear reactors had been abandoned and $9 billion had been lost. And even then it took a stern warning from Gov. Henry McMaster to make the audit public.

It’s no wonder Santee Cooper and SCANA officials wanted the information kept secret. Bechtel raised serious questions about the nuclear project’s viability and suggested that estimates about completion timelines and final costs were unrealistic.

Obviously, those warnings would have been of vital interest to Santee Cooper bondholders and SCANA shareholders, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of South Carolina ratepayers who kept paying part of their monthly power bills toward a doomed effort.

State regulators and watchdog staff certainly ought to have been alerted as well.

Other notes show that the final Bechtel report was “scrubbed” of the most damning portions. And Santee Cooper and SCE&G officials questioned whether the report should be provided in writing at all.

In other words, they knew that things were going badly. They feared the blowback that would result if the information went public. And they chose to keep it secret and proceed with the reactor construction as if nothing were wrong.

So far, most of the investigation related to the nuclear failure has hinged on whether SCANA acted “prudently” in spending ratepayer money on the reactors. That’s the legal standard that could determine how much SCE&G customers owe in the future for the project.

But these new documents, which The Post and Courier obtained after they were handed over to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, raise even more serious questions. The revelations they contain detail activity that federal investigators will sift through for possible criminal activity.

State law enforcement also is conducting a probe.

It’s possible that state regulators still would have given the nuclear project the go-ahead even after red flags were raised by the Bechtel report. Investors might not have panicked. After all, construction delays and cost overruns were well-known even if the audit’s details were not.

But when given the decision to “disclose or not,” Santee Cooper and SCANA officials chose to keep critical information to themselves. They remained silent while leading South Carolina into an economic disaster from which it could spend years or even decades recovering.

— Post and Courier, Charleston

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