Every day, about 2,000 workers in protective clothing brave high radiation levels at a nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to repair damage from last year’s earthquake and tsunami.
This is the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant, a facility largely forgotten after the disaster unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant 10 kilometers to the north.
Given the local government opposition and rising anti-nuclear sentiment, it is highly doubtful that any nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture will be approved for a restart.
Yet TEPCO continues to spend billions of yen to repair the No. 2 nuclear plant. And these costs will be covered by consumers in the form of higher electricity rates requested by TEPCO.
Straddling the towns of Naraha and Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, the No. 2 plant comprises four boiling water reactors, each with an output capacity of 1.1 gigawatts. The plant's No. 1 reactor started operations in April 1982.
TEPCO's new management, including Chairman Kazuhiko Shimokobe, toured both the Fukushima No. 1 and Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plants on July 4 for the first time at their new posts.
“You must have gone through so much, but you have all done a really great job," Shimokobe told employees at the Fukushima No. 2 plant.
Like the No. 1 plant, the No. 2 plant lost functions to cool its reactors following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 last year. The cooling system was restored within several days at the No. 2 plant, but repairs of pipes and other equipment are continuing at the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 reactors. They are expected to return to their original states toward the end of the current fiscal year.
Many workers take more than an hourlong bus ride to commute from Iwaki and other municipalities. They wear disposable masks and gloves, even in the buses, because the No. 2 plant lies in the no-entry zone within a 20-kilometer radius of the crippled No. 1 plant.
"We do not know if their commuting routes have been decontaminated," said a public relations official at TEPCO. "Decontamination on the premises (of the No. 2 plant) is proceeding only slowly."
But these measures cost money.
In fact, TEPCO is spending 90 billion yen ($1.13 billion) a year on the Fukushima No. 2 plant and the Fukushima No. 1 plant's No. 5 and No. 6 reactors, which were offline when the earthquake struck and escaped serious damage. Just keeping the reactors cool requires manpower to operate equipment and to carry out repairs and inspections.
The utility included that 90 billion yen in its calculations when it filed its request to raise household electricity rates by an average of 10.28 percent. In short, the utility hopes to pass on the maintenance costs to the consumers instead of heeding the Fukushima prefectural government's request to decommission the reactors.
Late last year, the Fukushima prefectural government compiled a "reconstruction plan," which included scrapping both the No. 2 plant and the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors at the No. 1 plant. The prefectural assembly also adopted a petition calling for the dismantling of all nuclear reactors in the prefecture.
Approval of local governments is required to restart reactors. But despite the local opposition, Shimokobe said TEPCO will not make an immediate decision on its nuclear plants.
"The nation's energy policy and the role of nuclear power are currently under discussion," Shimokobe said after touring the No. 2 plant on July 4. "We will think (about what to do with the No. 2 plant) following the outcome (of those discussions)."
Takashi Nagata, a certified public accountant who is a member of the industry ministry’s expert committee reviewing TEPCO's rate hike request, said, "A decision to scrap the reactors could generate immediate losses in the hundreds of billions of yen."
Such a decision would not only reduce the assets of the nuclear power plants to zero but would also generate costs to decommission the reactors. Those losses would push TEPCO deeper into the red.
The trillions of yen that TEPCO must pay in disaster compensation costs were already expected to put the utility in a state of excess liabilities.
One option on the table was having TEPCO file for bankruptcy protection and scrap all of its reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. In that case, the central government would have been responsible for compensation payments.
However, the government instead bailed out TEPCO without bankruptcy procedures, thus protecting TEPCO's creditor banks and shareholders and avoiding becoming responsible for the compensation payments.
The situation at the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant is an outcome of that decision. The costs of that decision are about to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher electricity rates.
(This article was compiled from reports by Kentaro Uechi and Kaname Ohira.)
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