An investigation by the Post and Courier, based in Charleston, SC, has led to calls for a criminal inquiry into the conduct of two utilities that cancelled one of the few nuclear power plants still under construction in the United States earlier this year, and the now-bankrupt engineering company that was designing it.
Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric and water utility, along with private holding company SCANA Corporation, cancelled their plan to build two 1.1-gigwatt generators at the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station in July, after spending US$9 billion on an incomplete facility that was originally scheduled to begin producing power this year. The plant’s designer, Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric, filed for bankruptcy in March.
In the first of two reports on the subject, the Post and Courier asserts that “Westinghouse and other contractors used unlicenced workers to design parts of [the] two nuclear reactors, a potentially criminal shortcut that raises fresh questions about why the multi-billion-dollar energy project failed.”
Citing documents it obtained, the Charleston paper reports that unlicenced workers were allowed to craft blueprints and conduct complex engineering calculations “without having them vetted and approved by professional engineers,” contrary to state law.
“The practice contributed to thousands of design revisions, construction setbacks, schedule changes, and the ultimate demise of the reactors,” the paper notes. Professional engineers involved in the construction were left “questioning the entire construction process.”
“You literally can’t make up the errors that were propagated in this thing,” one project engineer told the paper. “It was beyond comprehension. They enshrined incompetence.”
Following the newspaper’s revelations, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and the state’s House of Representatives asked the State Law Enforcement Division to open a criminal investigation into the affair, the Post and Courier reports in a follow-up article.
“State law enforcement officials would investigate whether Westinghouse and SCANA violated the state’s engineering laws,” the outlet writes, citing a spokesperson for Wilson.
In appealing for an investigation, House Speaker Jay Lucas and members of a committee investigating the affair declared the collapse of the project was “a direct result of misrepresentation by SCANA and [its subsidiary] SCE&G,” and of 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,” the legislators added, “it is imperative that it be discovered as quickly as possible, and that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.”