Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, did not specify the cost of decommissioning the plant’s reactors in its work schedule announced Dec. 21 — apparently to obscure the possibility of the utility becoming insolvent and no longer viable as a company.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said earlier this month it will raise electricity charges for corporate users from next April and will swiftly seek government approval for household electricity bill hikes to cope with growing fuel costs stemming from boosting thermal power generation in the wake of the nuclear crisis at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Tokyo Electric President Toshio Nishizawa told a press conference that details are currently being worked out and that the margin of the rise for corporate users will be unveiled in January next year.
“As a result of trying to maintain our supply capacity, fuel costs are significantly increasing…If this situation continues, there is a fear that, in the near future, fuel procurement may be disrupted and the stable supply of electricity may also be affected,” Nishizawa said.
Fuel costs for fiscal 2011 are expected to increase by about 830 billion yen from the previous year, according to TEPCO. By raising electricity rates for corporate users, the company is likely to secure some several hundreds of billions of yen.
TEPCO does not need to seek government approval for raising electricity charges for customers whose contracts are for 50 kilowatts or more, such as office buildings and factories. But when it comes to households, the permission from the economy, trade and industry minister is required.
Under a detailed roadmap approved earlier Wednesday following consultation with experts and nuclear regulators, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co will start removing spent fuel rods within two to three years from their pools located on the top floor of each of their reactor buildings.
The decades-long process also would place an enormous financial burden on TEPCO. The ministers said that the total cost estimate cannot be provided immediately, but promised that there will be no delay because of financial reasons.
Economy and Trade Minister Yukio Edano promised that authorities would ensure safety at the plant. He also vowed to pay attention to the concerns of tens of thousands of residents displaced when the plant was knocked out by Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
“We must not allow the work toward decommissioning to cause any new risks or delay the return of the residents to their homes,” he said.
The process still requires the development of robots and technology that can do much of the work remotely because of extremely high radiation levels inside the reactor buildings. Officials say they are aiming to have such robots by 2013 and start decontaminating the reactor buildings in 2014.
University of Tokyo professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, who blasted the government over its response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, has been selected by British science journal Nature as one of 10 important people this year.
In July, the professor appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare, and sharply criticized the government over its response to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, saying, “What on earth is the Diet doing when 70,000 people are wandering about, away from their homes?”
The government is considering injecting taxpayers’ money into the utility and nationalizing it to turn it into an entity dedicated to providing compensation for the nuclear crisis. The government is also poised to launch a full-scale debate on the fate of TEPCO’s management with major lenders to the utility.
It is difficult to predict how much it will cost to decommission the four reactors — a task expected to take up to 40 years and be fraught with difficulties. A government-appointed third-party panel estimated in October that it will cost 1.151 trillion yen to decommission the troubled reactors. TEPCO, meanwhile, has decided to set aside some 940 billion yen for decommissioning.
The utility, however, is aware that the decommissioning costs “are certain to snowball, to the point where an additional allocation of more than 200 billion yen would be far from enough,” according to a TEPCO executive. A senior official with the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry says the utility “would go under instantly if the entire decommissioning costs were processed all at once.”
During another news conference the same day, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano reiterated his hard-line stance that the decommissioning costs “should be shouldered by TEPCO as a matter of course.” Regarding the possibility that TEPCO, the main entity handling decommissioning work and providing compensation, could become insolvent, Edano said, “We are considering all possible options to support the utility through the Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund.”
The Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund has been providing financial support to TEPCO in its compensation payments to those affected by the nuclear crisis, but the fund does not envisage monetary support for decommissioning costs.
The Japanese government said Wednesday that it could take 40 years to clean up and fully decommission a nuclear plant that went into meltdown after it was struck by a huge tsunami.
Nuclear crisis minister Goshi Hosono suggested that the timetable was ambitious, acknowledging that decommissioning three reactors with severely melted fuel plus spent fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was an “unprecedented project,” and that the process was not “totally foreseeable.”
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