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More about Wednesday utilities meetings

June 28, 2012

Local governments turn their backs on utilities





As key shareholders in electric power companies, local governments could not afford to ignore calls to move away from nuclear power.

The nation's nine regional utilities that operate nuclear power plants held annual shareholders' meetings on June 27.

What made the meetings different this year was the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture and growing public wariness about nuclear power generation amid conflicting signals from the government about energy policy.

A good number of local governments reversed long-standing positions to side with Tohoku Electric Power Co. at the company's meeting.

At issue in this case was the planned construction of the Namie-Odaka nuclear power plant, straddling the municipalities of Namie and Minami-Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, both of which were hard hit by severe radiation fallout last year.

The facility is to be built in the vicinity of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Construction work was set to begin in fiscal 2016, according to a Tohoku Electric blueprint drawn up before the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

When a citizen group shareholder proposed canceling the project, seven local governments, including the Fukushima prefectural government and the host municipalities of Namie and Minami-Soma, gave their unqualified support. This represented a major turnaround in their positions.

"We have been calling for the abolition of all nuclear plants in the prefecture since we announced our program for reconstruction that included a shift from nuclear power generation last year," explained a prefectural official.

The Namie town assembly late last year decided to withdraw its 1967 resolution to co-host the facility. The Minami-Soma municipal assembly has also called for construction to be canceled.

But the prefectural government of Miyagi, which neighbors Fukushima Prefecture, the municipal government of Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture, and some other local governments were opposed to the proposal. They are located further away from the planned site. In any event, the proposal was rejected.

A Miyagi prefectural official explained that the utility did not need to heed calls to include scrapping of the project in its articles of incorporation on grounds it is a one-off project.

Tohoku Electric serves northeastern Japan, the region devastated by last year's magnitude-9.0 earthquake that spawned giant tsunami and triggered the nuclear disaster.

Some shareholders wanted to know if the utility is ignoring the opinion of residents in Fukushima Prefecture, given that anything nuclear these days gives shudders to the local population.

"We would like to show a direction based on the central government's discussion of new energy policies," said Noriaki Abe, vice president of the utility. "Of course, we will take the views of local people into consideration."

At that point, the venue went into an uproar and a moderator had to ask the participants to be quiet.

In total, 67 anti-nuclear power and other shareholder proposals were submitted at the shareholders' meetings of seven utilities. Only Hokkaido Electric Power Co. and Hokuriku Electric Power Co. did not have to deal with such proposals.

Two-thirds support from shareholders with voting rights would have been required for the proposals to be adopted.

All the proposals were killed.

Most shareholders are financial institutions and businesses that have a large stake in the utilities.

The utilities had obtained proxy votes from leading shareholders beforehand, ensuring that the proposals would not get off the ground.

Twenty-eight proposals were submitted to Kansai Electric Power Co., the largest number among the nine regional utilities that held shareholders' meetings that day. It was attended by Mayor Toru Hashimoto of Osaka, the largest shareholder with a 9-percent stake.

Hashimoto presented 10 proposals, which included abolishing all the utility's nuclear plants as soon as possible.

"How will Kansai Electric respond if society is moving toward zero reliance on nuclear power?" Hashimoto asked.

Kansai Electric is more dependent on nuclear power generation than the other utilities.

The cities of Kobe and Kyoto, also shareholders of the utility, jointly called on the company to build a power supply system as soon as possible that is safe and sustainable and does not require nuclear energy.

The joint proposal received backing from 22 percent of shareholders.

At the meeting of Chubu Electric Power Co., a proposal to abandon nuclear power generation was also killed.

But Makinohara, a city within 10 kilometers of Chubu Electric's Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, took a clear stand this year to vote in favor. This was in sharp contrast to the blank vote last year. Shizuoka cast a blank vote this year.

The Tokyo metropolitan government urged TEPCO to improve its customer service and be more transparent about the process of raising electricity rates.

While 21 percent agreed to the metropolitan government's call for better service, only about 10 percent endorsed a proposal by other shareholders to give up nuclear power.

The metropolitan government has a 3-percent stake in TEPCO.

Naoki Inose, vice governor of Tokyo who attended the meeting, raised doubts about the soundness of having a regional utility.

"TEPCO tends to think lightly about its accountability to customers because it has long enjoyed the status of a regional monopoly," Inose said.

He accused TEPCO of not pushing nearly hard enough to restructure, referring to the company's decision to pass up paying bonuses only for this summer.

Inose compared the company's efforts with those of Resona Bank and Japan Airlines Co., which, like TEPCO, were bailed out with government funds and passed up paying bonuses three or four times in a row while they underwent rehabilitation.

He also called on TEPCO's management to disclose all data it used to decide on new electricity rates.

The utility raised the rate for business clients from April and plans to increase the rate for households this summer.

"We are making the proposals as the largest shareholder, a user that pays 50 billion yen ($632 million) a year and the administrator tasked to protect the lives of Tokyo residents," Inose said.

TEPCO continued to dismiss repeated calls to count the number of shareholders supporting the proposals after it moved on proceedings swiftly with approval for its own proposals from hundreds of pro-company shareholders in the front.

Tsunehisa Katsumata, the chairman of TEPCO who served as moderator, said, "We have an accurate grasp of the intention of leading shareholders."

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