Japan says Tepco to retain control of Fukushima site

Government says it will not take over clean-up operation

The Fukushima Daiichi plant

Japan’s government has reaffirmed that control of the contaminated water problem at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will remain with the site’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, defying calls to strip Tepco of responsibility for managing the aftermath of the March 2011 crisis.

Tatsuya Shinkawa, director of the nuclear accident response office at the ministry of economy, trade and industry, said that the ministry would step up its scrutiny of Tepco’s measures to respond to a 300-tonne leak of heavily radioactive water at the site, reported last week.

However, “even with the increased government action, there is no reduction in responsibility for Tepco”, said Mr Shinkawa.

The command structure at the site would stay the same, he added.

“This is Tepco’s plant. It has all the technology, all the maps, all the technical data on Fukushima Daiichi. I think [it] can control the situation, under oversight from the government.”

Mr Shinkawa’s remarks may fuel concerns that Tepco lacks the resources, the knowhow and the focus to manage the long task of decommissioning the plant. Last week’s disclosure of a leak from one of hundreds of tanks hurriedly built to store water used to cool fuel rods, followed by the discovery of radiation hotspots elsewhere, led to calls for Tokyo to take more direct control.

On Wednesday Japan’s nuclear industry regulator classified the leak as the most serious since the triple meltdowns caused by the earthquake and tsunami two and a half years ago.

The government in effect nationalised Tepco last summer, injecting about Y1tn in equity capital to reassure lenders that the utility could meet the cost of winding down the site while compensating tens of thousands of evacuees.

But so far its logistical involvement in the clear-up itself has been limited. Tepco, meanwhile, has remained part-owned by private investors, prompting criticism that it is trying to serve conflicting interests.

Earlier in August, following an admission from Tepco that groundwater flowing from hillsides was probably mixing with contaminated water at the reactor before reaching the sea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised a “firm national strategy” to deal with the contamination problem.

The government plans to dip into reserve funds in this year’s budget to support Tepco’s efforts to resolve the water crisis. The trade and industry ministry has also put in an open-ended request for funding an ambitious, longer-term project to freeze the soil around the damaged reactors to create a watertight barrier.

But the remarks from Mr Shinkawa suggest that problems at the site could be allowed to escalate, said Taro Kono, a deputy secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, and a long-term critic of its nuclear policy.

“The Meti way of thinking is crazy,” he said. “Tepco doesn’t want to spend money, and Tepco doesn’t want to use their personnel. The government has to step up and take responsibility for all of this, otherwise we won’t get on top of the situation.”

Tepco has said it will set up a special task force to deal with the storage of contaminated water, headed by president Naomi Hirose.

A company spokesperson said on Wednesday that the utility was already receiving advice from a variety of overseas bodies, including the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in Atlanta, and the US Department of Energy.

Tepco is also set to seek guidance from the new Tokyo-based International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, established this month under the chairmanship of Kyoto University professor, Hajimu Yamana.

On Wednesday Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority confirmed that it would raise its severity assessment of the recent leak, initially rated level 1 on an eight-point international scale, to level 3, denoting a “serious incident”.

The triple meltdowns triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 were rated 7, on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

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