Tepco chief falls ill as share slide persists

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Shares in Tokyo Electric Power continued to tumble on Wednesday falling another 17 per cent as the company at the centre of the worst nuclear accident in 25 years revealed that its chief executive has been hospitalised.

Masataka Shimizu, Tepco president and chief executive, entered hospital on Wednesday suffering from high blood pressure. He has been criticised for his handling of the nuclear crisis.

Wednesday’s falls followed on from even heavier losses on Tuesday amid growing speculation that the operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could be nationalised.

Public anger and potentially huge liability claims stemming from the nuclear accident have fuelled speculation the government could take over the utility.

Koichiro Gemba, Japan’s national policy minister, suggested on Tuesday that nationalisation was an option: “All kinds of discussion are, of course, possible on what to do with Tepco.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest circulation daily newspaper, had reported that the government was considering taking a majority stake in the company.

Emergency workers are battling to prevent highly irradiated water from the Fukushima plant flowing into the sea, in the latest development at the site following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Plutonium, believed to be from one of the damaged reactors, has been found in nearby soil, although Tepco insists this does not pose a threat to human health.

Concern about nationalisation had already sent Tepco’s shares tumbling to close at Y566 on Tuesday. On Wednesday they fell again to Y466, their lowest in almost five decades.

Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary, denied that talks on the company’s future had begun. Naoto Kan, prime minister, insisted that the country would handle the nuclear crisis “with the greatest urgency”.

Trace levels of the radioactive chemical iodine-131 have spread and were detected in the UK on Tuesday, but the concentration was extremely low, according to health authorities, and was not a health risk.

The UK Health Protection Agency said that trace levels of the radioactive chemical iodine-131 had been detected by measurements taken at a monitoring station in Oxfordshire on Tuesday.

The measurements followed reports of iodine at monitoring stations in Glasgow and Oxfordshire.

Dr James Gemmill, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s radioactive substances manager, said: “The concentration of iodine detected is extremely low and is not of concern for the public or the environment.”

Tadashi Maeda, a special adviser to the cabinet, said the priority was to stabilise the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, deal with power shortages and decide compensation for individuals and businesses affected by the crisis.

“Obviously, [the government] will consider many factors, but there is nobody who is currently thinking specifically, in an official capacity, about what to do [with Tepco],” Mr Maeda said.

Tepco’s fate is likely to rest in part on how responsible the utility is judged to be for the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The tsunami that took out the plant’s back-up cooling system was far bigger than the plant was designed to withstand. But the company and its regulators had been repeatedly warned in recent years that the area could be vulnerable to tsunamis bigger than it had factored into its assumptions.

Mr Kan highlighted the deficiency of the assumptions on which the plant’s design was based.

“There is no point denying that the recognition of tsunamis at the time was very mistaken,” Mr Kan told a session of the diet.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced plans to visit Japan on Thursday, to express France’s solidarity both “nationally and in its capacity as head of the G8 and G20 with the Japanese people”. During the visit Mr Sarkozy will meet Mr Kan.

Areva, the French nuclear group, also confirmed that it had sent two engineers who specialised in the treatment of effluent water at the request of Tepco, although it could not confirm whether they would go on-site at the Fukushima plant.

President Barack Obama would outline a plan for “America’s energy security” in a speech on Wednesday, the White House said.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Thompson in Paris

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