South Carolina puts nuclear reactors on hold

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - A South Carolina utility said it has delayed its licensing application to build Westinghouse Electric Co. reactors as it weighs increasing construction costs against projected energy demand.

South Carolina Electric & Gas spokesman Eric Boomhower said the Columbia-based utility is still preparing its application for licensing of two AP1000s at its existing nuclear facility near Jenkinsville, S.C. But the utility did not submit its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before the end of 2007 as planned, Boomhower said, and declined to name a new date for submission.

"Our timeline has been pushed back as we continue to evaluate our options for generation," he said. "We want to make sure we give due consideration to the rising costs associated with nuclear plant construction before we move forward with this important decision."

Increasing steel and concrete costs are driving up the price tags of the 30 or so would-be reactors that U.S. utilities have proposed, although it would be years before construction begins on any of them.

Monroeville-based Westinghouse is the reactor of choice for 12 of those proposed reactors, although just four of them have been submitted for NRC licensing: two for Duke Energy, also in South Carolina, and two for TVA/NuStart near Hollywood, Ala.

If SCE&G goes forward, Boomhower said the first reactor would be operating by 2016 and the second by 2019.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said SCE&G's delay would have no negative impact on the company's continued growth. It is on track to have hired 1,300 people worldwide in the fiscal year ending in March, with about 500 more annually for each of the next few years.

Its local headquarters employs about 2,400 people, a figure projected to grow to about 3,500 as it moves into new offices in Cranberry beginning in 2009.

"We never envisioned - nor did our customers - that we would build all of the reactors concurrently," Gilbert said. "We remain very upbeat about the future of nuclear power."

Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, theorized that perhaps SCE&G feared it would not clear regulatory hurdles quickly enough to qualify for the $18.5 billion loan guarantees offered by the Bush administration. With reactor construction estimated at about $6 billion each, that leaves room for only about three utilities to get through the process before those guarantees are exhausted.

"There's no question that building a new reactor is an enormous financial undertaking that is beyond the means of most U.S. companies," Slocum said. "(That) is why they have pushed so hard for unprecedented levels of subsidies from the U.S. taxpayers."

Boomhower said the possibility of loan guarantees has no bearing on SCE&G's decision.


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