Utility execs testify on reactors

S.C. Electric & Gas Co. officials defended their plans Wednesday to start work at a proposed nuclear reactor site near Columbia, saying any delay would add to overall cost of the project.

The company wants to build two reactors in partnership with state-owned utility Santee Cooper to meet its expectations for growing demand, especially along the coast. Opponents of the plan had the opportunity Wednesday to question executives about the cost, timing and need for the reactors during a hearing in front of the Public Service Commission.

That agency inspects, audits and examines public utilities and does not oppose SCE&G's request to start on the project, saying the company will have to bear the cost of work done between now and the end of the year if the reactors are not approved.

It would cost about $10.5 million for work at the site by the end of the year, said Alan Torres, manager of construction of the two new reactors. SCE&G would pay $5.8 million of that and Santee Cooper, the rest. The overall cost of the two reactors is estimated at $10 billion.

Torres said SCE&G needs to immediately start relocating a rail line that will be needed in May to replace a transformer at the reactor that is operating on the Fairfield County site. If that line isn't relocated in time, Torres and company President Kevin Marsh testified, site work would have to wait until 2010, delaying construction of the reactors and adding millions to the overall cost.

“The timetable is driven by the need for electricity,” Marsh said.

Company projections anticipate having to buy 450 megawatts of electricity from other producers by 2015. The reactors would produce 1,117 megawatts of electricity and the first would come online in April 2016 if approved by state and federal regulators.

Environmentalists questioned the need for the reactors, saying the company has overestimated power needs in the past.

Joseph Lynch, manager of resource planning for SCE&G's parent company Scana Inc., admitted that the company overestimated its needs when it built the initial reactor at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station. But he said expected population growth in the company's service areas as well as the myriad electronic devices that people are buying lead him to trust his current forecast.

Lynch discounted the impact that conservation efforts, including more energy efficient building standards, would have on electricity needs.

“What you're expecting on that efficiency may not occur,” Lynch said in response to a question from one of the dozen people who have officially opposed the plant. “I don't think the company can plan on all that conservation.”

The Public Service Commission will decide later whether site work can begin.

Commissioners will decide by February, after another series of hearings, on the company's request to begin charging higher rates to offset the reactors' cost.

The company says it expects the final decision on the reactors to come from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2011.