Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Obama's "Nuclear Renaissance" Hit Again By Bankruptcy

Since it was first announced almost a decade ago I've followed the "nuclear renaissance" that Obama touted and noted that it would likely end in failure due to the poor economics of these projects given our current, failed regulatory climate. The Federal government provided loans to get some of these projects off the ground. Now, with the bankruptcy of Toshiba's Westinghouse unit, the whole process is collapsing and leaving half-built reactors and rate payers (and investors) in many jurisdictions likely to hold the bag for huge investments that aren't going to generate power any time soon.
Toshiba Corp's U.S. nuclear unit Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors on Wednesday, just three months after huge cost overruns were flagged, as the Japanese parent seeks to limit losses that threaten its future. Bankruptcy will allow Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, once central to Toshiba's diversification push, to renegotiate or even break its construction contracts, though the utilities that own the projects could seek damages. It could even pave the way for a sale of all or part of the business. For Toshiba, the aim is to fence off soaring liabilities and keep the group afloat.
These partially built reactors in Georgia and South Carolina were commissioned because local laws and regulations allowed for the costs of these investments to be passed on to the rate payer (local folks paying electric bills). In other states with different sorts of regulatory models, these sorts of investments would have been uneconomic, which is the primary reason why everyone else in the USA balked at the nuclear renaissance, even when it was partially underwritten by the Federal government with loans.

There are now two problems for rate-payers in Georgia and South Carolina:
1) the companies now have to build these reactors without price guarantee from Toshiba, meaning that the (likely) giant costs of the overruns will be borne by local ratepayers or the companies themselves. If the unit is in bankruptcy and walled off from the funds of the parent corporation (which is the purpose of the bankruptcy, I am assuming), it seems unlikely that anyone else would step up and backstop such a guarantee.
2) this bankruptcy is likely to cause significant delays in construction, meaning that the long, miserable process of getting certified to start up the reactor is going to be pushed out further into the future. This means that it will be that much longer until the unit starts generating power and "earns back" the investment, and all the costs of the reactors will accrue interest and financing charges for that much longer while construction proceeds (rate payers)

Note that there is precedent for taking gigantic write downs and abandoning abandoned reactors. Here is a link to the abandoned reactors in Washington and the famous Shoreham debacle in New York.

None of this seems to be impacting the stock prices of Southern Company (SO) and Scana (SGC) this morning so maybe the market knows something that I don't. Scana is holding a press conference to describe their next steps in the process today and I didn't seen anything yet scheduled on Southern Company's web site.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

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