Farmers demanding compensation for the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant paraded cattle in front of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s headquarters as bankers and business executives worked quietly behind the scenes to limit the company's liabilities.
About 400 farmers gathered outside TEPCO's head office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 26 carrying placards that read "Return the safe farmland" and "TEPCO must pay for all damage."
Cattle were trucked in by dairy farmers in Fukushima, Chiba and other prefectures, and shipments of spinach that had been halted because of the nuclear leaks were also put on display.
The wife of a 64-year-old farmer in Fukushima Prefecture who hanged himself on March 24, the day after the government advised people not to eat cabbage and other vegetables grown in the prefecture, held a portrait of her late husband as she told TEPCO officials: "I think (he committed suicide) to protest TEPCO. Stop the nuclear power plant as soon as possible."
The man had been farming organically for about 30 years and had taken pride in supplying safe produce, his family said. His cabbages had been one of his farm's specialities.
The farmers' representatives submitted a document to TEPCO calling for the prompt payment of damages.
TEPCO only committed itself to paying compensation in line with the recommendations of a government panel that is expected to set its first guidelines on the scope of compensation on April 28.
The government is planning to call on TEPCO to provide provisional compensation to farmers, fishermen and individual business operators.
As the farmers protested on Tokyo streets, business and bank representatives were lobbying inside the corridors of power to put limits on the bill to be paid by TEPCO.
TEPCO began paying provisional compensation to evacuees from the nuclear power plant on April 26, but the overall compensation framework is not yet clear.
The government proposed to set no limits on TEPCO's liability. That would be in line with the law on compensation for nuclear accidents, which stipulates that a company that caused an accident bears unlimited liability.
The total bill would be in the range of trillions of yen.
But a senior official of a government ministry said: "Banks and businesses have urged the government to cap TEPCO's compensation."
Three megabanks and other financial institutions, which together extended 2 trillion yen in emergency loans to TEPCO after the accident, fear that the company will not be able to repay them because of the compensation liabilities.
"The market will not favorably evaluate the government proposal," said a senior official at a major bank. "If liabilities are unlimited, credit rating agencies will conclude that TEPCO is insolvent."
The government had planned to finalize its plans by the end of April, but they could be delayed until early May, sources said.
Under the draft plan, electric power companies that operate nuclear power plants would jointly set up an agency to enable the payment of compensation.
If TEPCO was unable to pay all the compensation, the government would provide public funds to the agency and the agency would lend the money to TEPCO.
Under the government proposal, the public funds would be repaid by the electric power companies.
But if upper limits were set on TEPCO's compensation bill, the government would be required to provide supplementary payments to the victims.
During a meeting at TEPCO headquarters on April 26, questions from about 150 financial analysts focused on the proposed framework for compensation.
According to sources, TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata said it would be difficult for TEPCO to issue bonds to raise funds if no limits were set on the company's liabilities.
"We are negotiating with the government to establish a framework that allows us to continue to operate as a stock corporation and pay compensation from our net earnings," Katsumata was quoted as saying.
Other regional electric power companies are also concerned about the proposed framework.
If no limits are set on TEPCO's compensation bill, the amount that would have to be paid by other power companies into the compensation agency is unclear.
The president of one electric power company said, "We will not be able to explain to our shareholders and customers if we have no idea how much our share will be."
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