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Winning local understanding - Has TEPCO forgotten?

 July 6, 2013



Editorial: TEPCO must not automatically assume that its nuclear reactors can be restarted




Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) President Naomi Hirose failed to impress Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida during their July 5 meeting in connection with the utility's bid to restart reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata Prefecture.

The cold response comes as no surprise, as the utility acted rudely by failing to provide an explanation to locals before announcing that it would file for a safety assessment from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to restart the reactors.

TEPCO is hurrying to start the reactors again because its business plans have come to an impasse. The government bears heavy responsibility for this situation, as it allowed the power company to adopt an unreasonable business plan built on the premise of putting the reactors back into use.

TEPCO seeks a safety assessment of the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant -- a necessary step in ensuring that they meet new safety regulations. Even if the company were to force through a safety assessment application without prior approval from the prefecture, however, it would still need to obtain approval from local bodies to restart the reactors. By going over local officials' heads with its latest announcement, TEPCO has only ended up raising the hurdle to restart the reactors.

In the past, Hirose had reiterated that the power company would work on the premise of winning local understanding. TEPCO's dire financial situation, however, resulted in its announcing over the heads of locals that it would seek the safety assessments. Last fiscal year, the power company registered a pretax loss for the second year in a row -- a result of increased fuel costs for the thermal power plants that it has fired up to compensate for suspending operations at its nuclear plants. The company's losses do not include the compensation that TEPCO must pay for the disaster that befell its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Last year, TEPCO raised electricity prices on the assumption that the company's nuclear reactors would be fired up in succession beginning this fiscal year. If that assumption crumbles, and TEPCO registers a loss for the third consecutive business year, then banks could sever their loans to the utility. TEPCO believes that to return to the black without further increasing electricity rates, it has no option but to reactivate its nuclear reactors.

The four main power companies in the Hokkaido, Kansai, Shikoku and Kyushu regions plan to seek safety assessments for 12 nuclear reactors. Considering the screening capacity of the NRA, reactor assessments are likely to be delayed for a year or more among those companies that fail to make it into the first round of screening. Under such circumstances, it would be no easy task to produce a business plan that could convince banks to keep lending them money.

The boiling water reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant are the same type as those at the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Furthermore, a geological fault lies directly beneath the plant in Niigata Prefecture. Meanwhile, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has not been brought to a conclusion, and the probe into the cause of the accident is incomplete. TEPCO should know full well that restarting its reactors under such conditions is a difficult task. If TEPCO's aim were simply to portray itself as putting in its "best effort" while knowing the difficulties involved in restarting the reactors, it would be trampling on its relationship of trust with the prefectures. Such a stance is impermissible.

There is no option for TEPCO other than that of drawing up a new business plan that does not lean on the assumption of restarting its reactors. Of course, efforts to further streamline its operations and procure less expensive fuel are necessary. But if TEPCO still cannot survive after all this, it must consider passing its financial burden on to consumers through an increase in electricity prices.

These issues cannot be avoided when aiming for a society that does not rely on nuclear power, as they are tied up with the financial burden that residents must shoulder. The government needs to clarify the role of nuclear power in its energy policy, and aim to win understanding from the Japanese public.

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