Insight: Japan ponders Fukushima options, but Tepco too big to fail

Tue Sep 10, 2013 5:02pm EDT
 
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By Linda Sieg

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 30 months later, the utility is still in charge.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the centerpiece of Tokyo's successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics, 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 financial markets, 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.   Continued...

 
An aerial view shows the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage tanks (top) in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo