Dreams of small reactors, “public-private” partnerships vanish
By ROBERT MEYEROWITZ
When partners SCANA and Santee Cooper decided to stop work on two V.C. Summer reactors July 31, it left a mountain of debt and a wake of finger-pointing. It also seemed to put the last nail in the coffin of what once had been touted as a great economic development opportunity for South Carolina, even beyond the multi-billion-dollar Jenkinsville project.
That isn’t how it looked just five years ago. In 2012, “In a step designed to accelerate the deployment of modular, scaleable nuclear technology and boost economic development,” NuScale Power, an Oregon-based startup manufacturer of small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs, said it was partnering with “NuHub, an economic development initiative in Columbia, SC,” to build the sophisticated devices.
NuHub would “participate in NuScale’s application for an award under the Department of Energy’s $452 million cost sharing program for Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support,” according to a press release.
NuHub is or was part of a public-private Columbia-based nonprofit business incubator called EngenuitySC. Its board is chaired by Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides.
In March of 2013, NuHub trumpeted a deal it struck with the state and Holtec International, a manufacturer of the SMR-160 reactor among other things it does in the nuclear industry. It was an “exclusive partnership,” NuHub said, “to compete for up to a $226 million Department of Energy award.”
The “economic possibilities are big for the region,” a NuHub representative told the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council in 2012. “Holtec projects that its annual exports of units could be up to $100 billion per year as compared to BMW’s $5 billion per year.”
South Carolina Electric & Gas, a division of SCANA, stated it was backing “efforts to bring SMR technology to South Carolina. ‘SCE&G has a longstanding relationship with Holtec at our current nuclear plant, V.C. Summer, and we hope to bring our new nuclear construction expertise to the table to support the development of the project,’” an SCE&G executive said in 2013.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to be a global leader in nuclear technology by developing the nation’s first small modular reactors,” said Governor Nikki Haley. “Holtec International is a highly competitive firm in SMR technology, and we are excited to partner with them.”
In June that year, reporter Corey Hutchins of Free Times spoke with Meghan Hughes, a senior project manager with NuHub, for an article about V.C. Summer and the nuclear industry in South Carolina.
NuHub was begun in 2010 “to take advantage of all the new nuclear activity” in South Carolina, Hughes told Free Times. By bringing together higher education institutions with private industry and other groups, NuHub was working to “make the region a world-class location for nuclear power.”
“You are seeing internationally some trends changing for nuclear,” Hughes told the paper, “but you are also seeing some trends where there are economic engines like China that are investing heavily in their nuclear programs and there are new builds going on all over the world.”
The only new nuclear builds going on in the U.S., Hughes said, are “happening right here in our backyard” — and NuHub was taking advantage of “the job creation potential.”
Asked what she thought set South Carolina apart, Hughes said it was “the way the state’s political community worked with the nuclear industry to make it easier to tackle a capital investment like a new nuclear plant.”
“A lot of it has to do with the incredibly positive political environment that we’ve got for nuclear here in our state,” Hughes continued. “We’ve got a state Legislature that supports it; we’ve got a federal delegation that’s very pro-nuclear; we’ve got a general public that’s very used to nuclear. So it makes taking on projects like nuclear that in some places can be controversial — it makes doing it in South Carolina easier business, which quite frankly, is a good thing for our state and our workforce because it provides an incredible economic value.”
NuHub was focused on promoting development of the small modular reactors, Hughes said. Columbia already had held three SMR conferences; that, she said, “just goes to show that folks are recognizing that South Carolina is playing a real role as a leader not only in nuclear power today but in future generations in nuclear power. That’s a good place to be.”
In December of 2013, when the Department of Energy announced it would award funding for developing a small modular reactor design to NuScale, not Holtec, it looked as though the state and NuHub had bet on the wrong horse.
Until very recently, NuHub seemed to be on a similar course.
According to its EngenuitySC site, NuHub was still “a collaborative group of public, private, higher education and workforce development stakeholders working to maximize economic and job creation opportunities for the nuclear industry in the Midstate region of South Carolina, and to establish the Midstate as a hub and global leader for nuclear energy innovation.”
Its executive committee included Steve Byrne, the executive vice president of SCANA, which had been the lead partner on the V.C. Summer project before it stopped work July 31, and Don Goldbach, the director of manufacturing strategy at Westinghouse, the company now in bankruptcy that had been the V.C. Summer contractor.
Where did NuHub go?
Last Wednesday, we contacted Hughes, who has since married and become Meghan Hickman.
In 2014, she became the executive director of EngenuitySC. Founded in 2003, Enegenuity has received millions of dollars in public funding “to build a more vibrant economy.” Hickman succeeded Neil McLean in that role.
We wanted to know what had become of NuHub and all the small module reactor plans.
“EngenuitySC actually isn’t involved in the nuclear sector at this time,” Hickman emailed. “Thanks for reaching out.”
EngenuitySC itself is something of a rare bird. Its 990 tax form for 2015, the latest available online, shows it had $864,276 in contributions and grants. It doesn’t show any direct compensation for Meghan Hickman or other staff. Instead, it says EngenuitySC paid Sagacious Partners LLC, the employer of its executive director, Hickman, $492,088 for “management services.”
Sagacious Partners is a Columbia-based private, for-profit business, incorporated in South Carolina in 2001. It provides management for public clients that, in addition to EngenuitySC, include the SC Council on Competitiveness, Richland County School District One, and the Orangeburg County Development Commission.
“When it comes to making a difference, Sagacious Partners believes in the power of collaboration,” according to the company’s website. “When the public and private sector work hand-in-hand, great things can happen for a region or state. We pride ourselves in our expertise as ‘professional dot-connectors’ and the ability to get the right folks around the table.”
Sagacious’s partner and chief operating officer is Meghan Hickman. (Its founder and managing partner is Neil McLean.)
After her first email, we asked Hickman what had become of NuHub, but she didn’t respond.
By Friday morning, all of the NuHub web material had been taken down.