TOKYO (Reuters) – Fukushima nuclear plant operator Tepco Electric’s response to the world’s worst atomic disaster in a quarter century has been called ad hoc and more concerned with cost than safety, but…
(Reuters) – Fukushima nuclear plant operator Tepco Electric’s response to the world’s worst atomic disaster in a quarter century has been called ad hoc and more concerned with cost than safety, but 30 months later, the utility is still in charge.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the centerpiece of Tokyo’s successful bid to host the 2020Olympics, said he would be personally responsible for a plan to cope with the legacy of the March 2011 disaster in which a massive earthquake and tsunami caused triple meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some 160,000 residents to flee their homes.
A crisis over radiation-contaminated water at the plant has revived calls to put Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) into bankruptcy as a prelude to nationalizing the clean-up and shut-down of the reactors, but there is little political support for the idea given its potential fallout for financialmarkets, Tepco’s creditors and other nuclear utilities.
With concerns over Tepco’s ability to cope, policymakers are pondering ways to take the Fukushima shut-down off the utility’s hands, perhaps through an agency along the lines of Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Even that, though, faces hurdles, including the likely need for new legislation, clarity on the size of the bill for taxpayers and government liability, and working out the implications for Japan’s other utilities.
That means, at least for now, the government may just end up pouring in more money, leaving Tepco in charge while stepping up official oversight.
"They haven’t come up with any good idea yet," said one former government official, although he said various options were being discussed. "Abe is not shy about providing government support, but I don’t think he’s thinking about any radical change of the structure of this company," he said, referring to calls to put Tepco through bankruptcy procedures.
ON LIFE SUPPORT
Abe’s government last week said it would spend nearly half a billion dollars to contain the leaks and decontaminate water at the facility. That’s on top of a 1 trillion yen ($10 billion) injection of public funds last year and a 5 trillion yen government credit line for compensating disaster victims.
"Clearly the government is using state funds to extend Tepco’s life, so the only way forward is to legally bankrupt the firm and make clear who is responsible, including past directors, financial institutions and shareholders," said Kazuyoshi Sato, an assembly member in Iwaki City just outside the 30 km (18.5 mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant.
Few in Tokyo support that view.
"I don’t think it’s right to put in taxpayers’ money without Tepco going down," said ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono, who has long been at odds with his party over nuclear energy. But he added: "It seems I’m the only one, or one of just a few, being noisy about liquidation."
Tepco’s admission in July that contaminated water had flowed into the Pacific Ocean and news that highly contaminated water was leaking from a tank storing water used to cool the melted reactor cores prompted Abe’s pledge to take the lead and bolster government oversight.
Several ruling party politicians, however, said Tepco’s bankruptcy – considered but rejected in the months after the disaster because authorities decided the utility was too big to fail – was not on the table now.
"Tepco is, in reality, bankrupt," said LDP lawmaker Taku Yamamoto, head of the party’s panel on natural resources and energy strategy. "But under the law … it cannot be put through bankruptcy. It must fulfill its role."
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