Owner of Crippled Japanese Nuclear Plant Fights for Survival

A protester wearing a mask holds a sign at a rally, in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO], aimed at criticizing TEPCO and demanding the abolition of nuclear power, in Tokyo,  March 3, 2012.
A protester wearing a mask holds a sign at a rally, in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO], aimed at criticizing TEPCO and demanding the abolition of nuclear power, in Tokyo, March 3, 2012.

The company at the center of the nuclear meltdown disaster in Japan has been subject to enormous public, government and international criticism over the past year. Now, Tokyo Electric Power Company finds itself fending off a government takeover plan. This is all part of the fallout from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting killer tsunami which swamped the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant last year, causing three reactors to melt down.

Facing tens of billions of dollars in liabilities, clean-up costs and the eventual decommissioning of its Fukushima power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO, is in a fight for its survival.

Media reports say in exchange for providing about $10 billion in public funds, the government will take a majority stake in the company.

Japan has relied on nuclear facilities for nearly one third of its electricity, but now there is an unprecedented debate about the future of atomic power.

It might be expected that with TEPCO's huge investments, the company would be loudly lobbying in support of nuclear power.

But in the darkened halls of its headquarters, the utility is being very cautious.

In a rare broadcast interview granted to foreign media, company spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi tells VOA that TEPCO is focused on keeping the crippled nuclear plant stable and taking care of compensation claims.

"That is what we are doing for the time being. As for the question about energy policy, at this moment, we are not in a position to say," said Hitosugi.

A recent independent investigation into the reactor meltdowns at Fukushima concluded TEPCO was "astonishingly unprepared" for the disaster.

However, the man who was the leader of Japan's government on March 11, Naoto Kan, said the utility is not solely to blame.

"I think in many ways the accident at the Fukushima plant was man-made. That is to say, neither my government nor previous administrations put in place proper precautions for this sort of event. So some of the responsibility lies with my administration - and also with me," said Kan.

No one yet has been charged with any crime related to the reactor meltdowns, which spread radiation over farmland, distant communities and into the sea.

Officials estimate it will take 40 years to clean up and decommission the Fukushima-1 nuclear plant. Some nearby towns may never again be habitable.

Thousands of TEPCO staff members are now processing victim's claims, following criticism the process was too slow.

Company spokesman Hitosugi vows that compensation will be "generous and kind" once the claims are properly sorted.

"We'd like to extend our deep apologies to people all around the world for causing such worries. With the help of supporting companies we are working hard to maintain the reactors in a stable state for the moment," said Hitosugi.

TEPCO is to announce soon that it needs to raise electricity rates. That extra money and a massive injection of public funds, the company contends, are necessary to continue supplying electricity to 45 million people.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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by: Yaakov Nahum Ben-Avraham
March 06, 2012 7:45 AM
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