3rd guilty plea in South Carolina nuclear project failure


COLUMBIA, S.C. — A former official for the contractor hired to build two South Carolina nuclear reactors that were never completed pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to federal authorities.

Carl Churchman entered the plea in federal court, court records show.

Churchman was the project director for Westinghouse Electric Co., the lead contractor to build two new reactors at the V.C. Summer plant. South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. parent company SCANA Corp. and state-owned utility company Santee Cooper spent nearly $10 billion on the project before halting construction in 2017 following Westinghouse’s bankruptcy.

The failure cost ratepayers and investors billions and left nearly 6,000 people jobless.

Churchman pleaded guilty to making a false statement to federal officials, according to court records. Allowed to remain free on bond pending his sentencing, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine and has agreed to help authorities with their ongoing investigation.

Churchman lied to an FBI agent in 2019, saying that he had not been involved in communicating the project timeline with utility executives, authorities said. But, according to officials, Churchman repeatedly emailed colleagues at Westinghouse about project completion dates, which he reported to executives in 2017.

In another interview last month, Churchman admitted his initial statements had been lies, according to prosecutors.

“This guilty plea shows that the investigation into the V.C. Summer nuclear debacle did not end with the former SCANA executives,” Acting U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart said in a statement. “We are committed to seeing this case through and holding all individual and corporate wrongdoers accountable.”

The implosion spawned multiple lawsuits, some by ratepayers claiming company executives knew the project was doomed and misled consumers and regulators as they petitioned for a series of rate hikes.

Dominion Energy ultimately paid more than $6.8 billion to buy out SCANA’s stock, also assuming its consolidated net debts of $6.6 billion. Lawmakers mulled selling Santee Cooper but last week signed off on an overhaul proposal that leaves the utility publicly owned.

Two top-level executives have already pleaded guilty in the multiyear federal fraud investigation into the failure, which cost ratepayers more than $2 billion and has been probed by state lawmakers.

Former SCANA Corp. Executive Vice President Stephen Byrne agreed last summer to tell investigators everything he knew about the lies and deception SCANA and SCE&G used to keep regulators approving rate increases and maintain support from investors.

Kevin Marsh, SCANA’s former CEO, signed a plea deal on felony fraud charges in November.

Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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