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Legislators want special session on abandoned nuke plants

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in South Carolina want the Legislature to return soon to deal with the abandonment of two nuclear reactors under construction.

But Speaker Jay Lucas said Aug. 4 that calls to freeze electric rates and stop any other action involving the reactors is impulsive and there isn’t a reason to immediately call a special session.

Pressure to do something, whether stopping any new rate hikes or firing lawmaker-approved regulators, is mounting in the days after South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper decided this week to abandon work that has already cost billions on the reactors at the V.C. Summer site.

Lucas’ comments were prompted after an Aug. 4 letter by Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler of West Columbia calling for lawmakers to return to Columbia and pass a resolution stopping the utilities from raising electric rates or taking any other action concerning the abandoned plants until the Legislature meets in regular session in January.

“There just needs to be a timeout, a pause, whatever you want to call it, until the General Assembly has the opportunity to understand in detail what has happened here,” said Setzler, who was one of 25 Senate sponsors of a 2007 law that allowed utilities to increase rates to pay for the plants before they ever generated power.

A different group of bipartisan lawmakers calling themselves the Energy Caucus also called for a special session this week to review that law and to consider firing the Public Service Commission, which has to approve all of SCE&G’s rate hikes.

But Lucas said it is too early to bring lawmakers back.

“The impulsive legislative action contemplated by Senators Massey and Setzler could have unintended and negative consequences and lead to higher rates for consumers. I have been thoroughly monitoring the situation and will continue to do so until a proper course of action can be determined,” the Hartsville Republican said in a statement.

Lucas’ position was backed by Rep. Kirkman Finlay. The Columbia Republican is a member of the new Energy Caucus, but wrote a letter saying the utilities need to have flexibility with their rates to pay back debt in the best manner for its customers, and passing a freeze now might mean the utilities never give any money back to ratepayers.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s ability to call a special session was greatly hampered by a state Supreme Court ruling six years ago. His office has said there needs to be exhaustive legislative hearings to figure out how to prevent something like this from happening again.

Both utilities have increased their rates several times over the past decade to pay for construction of the reactors. The project accounts for 18 percent of SCE&G’s residential electric bills and more than 8 percent of Santee Cooper’s. Neither company plans to refund a dime.

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