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Japan's power industry: Conclusions drawn in advance ?

January 10, 2017

Japan's power industry at crossroads as Fukushima decommissioning costs rise

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170110/p2a/00m/0na/005000c

 

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's plan to add the increased costs of decommissioning the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant was scrapped before the end of the year due to a public backlash.

It is estimated that the costs of decommissioning the crippled power station would snowball from 2 trillion yen to 8 trillion yen. An internal document that the ministry had compiled by September last year stated that the costs of compensation payments as well as the decommissioning expenses should be added to power transmission fees that new power companies pay for the use of major utilities' power grids.

If the decommissioning costs that are expected to increase by trillions of yen were regarded as TEPCO's debts, the utility would fall into a state of capital deficit -- in which the company's debts surpass its assets. It could force TEPCO to delist its stock on stock markets and make it difficult for banks to continue loaning to the firm.

To avoid such a situation, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has decided to change the accounting rules to allow TEPCO to book the decommissioning costs in separate years. To do so, however, it is necessary to guarantee that the costs can be recovered from TEPCO every year. Two plans surfaced to enable this.

One is to accumulate money to be saved through TEPCO's cost-cutting measures and management reform at the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. (NFD), which would control the decommissioning costs. The other is to add part of the decommissioning costs to transmission fees.

In October, a senior ministry official told LDP legislators behind closed doors, "It's safer to add the costs to the transmission fees than relying on TEPCO's management reform."

However, experts as well as the general public intensified their criticism of the plan to add decommissioning expenses to the transmission fees despite the earlier plan to make sure that TEPCO fully secured funds for decommissioning the plant.

In response, the ministry changed its policy. In a Nov. 8 document that the ministry released when briefing LDP members, it stated the two plans as ways to certainly secure enough funds for decommissioning the plant. However, in its Dec. 1 document, the plan to add the costs to transmission fees was dropped.

"We considered the use of transmission fees but we can't implement it because of mounting criticism of the plan," said a ministry official in charge of the matter.

On the other hand, major power suppliers besides TEPCO have footed the costs of paying compensation to those affected by the Fukushima nuclear crisis. An expert committee dealing with the matter proposed at the end of the year that the increase in the amount of compensation payments should be raised by adding the amount to transmissions fees.

Saying that power companies that own nuclear plants should have saved money to respond to nuclear accidents, the panel recommended that new power companies should shoulder part of the costs because their customers had previously benefited from nuclear power run by major utilities.

The committee also proposed that major power suppliers be obligated to supply less expensive electricity, such as power generated at nuclear plants, to new power companies. In other words, the panel attempted to take the carrot-and-stick approach to convince new market entrants.

In response to the recommendations, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry will implement the proposals after soliciting public comments. As a result of the implementation of the plan, the monthly electric power bill for a standard household in Japan, excluding Okinawa Prefecture where there are no nuclear plants, would rise an average of 18 yen over a 40-year period from 2020.

The ministry patiently and carefully formed consensus among legislators over the plan. The committee's conclusion was based on its explanatory document that the panel presented to the LDP shortly before.

House of Representatives member Taro Kono and a few other LDP legislators calling for an end to Japan's reliance on atomic power voiced opposition, but they fell far short of a majority.

Minako Oishi, an adviser on consumer affairs who sits at the experts' panel, repeatedly voiced opposition to adding compensation costs to transmission fees on the grounds that it would run counter to the purpose of liberalizing the power market. She also released a written statement to that effect. However, she was unable to overwhelm the firm alliance between politicians and bureaucrats.

"I have the impression that the conclusion had been drawn in advance. Such a serious matter as the additional financial burden of dealing with the Fukushima accident should've been discussed at the Diet," Oishi said.

On Dec. 20, 2016, the ministry's expert committee compiled its recommendations estimating that TEPCO needs to shoulder 16 trillion yen of the cost of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The recommendations urged TEPCO to merge each of its divisions, including nuclear power and power transmission, with those of other companies -- effectively leading to a split of the utility -- and advance into the global market.

On the same day, a message by TEPCO President Naomi Hirose was released through the company's in-house computer network. "If we steadily continue our work without hesitation, we can open up new opportunities. This is something that only TEPCO can do," the message said.

However, the message reflects Hirose's anxiety. Hirose told TEPCO executives the following day at the headquarters, "I'm worried whether employees can maintain their morale. Please try not to make them feel weak."

TEPCO failed to achieve its goal of getting out of state control as early as fiscal 2017 by improving its business performance -- because there are no prospects that its idled Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata Prefecture can be reactivated in the foreseeable future.

TEPCO Director Keita Nishiyama sat at the news conference on July 28 with Chairman Fumio Sudo and President Hirose, and read a statement saying that "the government needs to clarify its policy" on how to shoulder the costs of dealing with the nuclear crisis, which is expected to worsen. Nishiyama is a bureaucrat that the ministry loaned to TEPCO as a board member after placing the utility under state control.

His tough statement indirectly asks the government for assistance. A TEPCO executive said, "It's not a type of statement written by a private company insider."

At the news conference, the ministry suggested that it would take the opportunity of discussions on how to shoulder the costs of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear crisis to embark on its long-cherished goal of restructuring the electric power and atomic energy industries.

About two months later, the ministry set up two expert panels -- one on TEPCO reform and the other on the reform of the electric power system.

"In Japan, the demand for power has stagnated. In particular, regulations on the atomic energy business are stiff. Therefore, the power industry is a declining industry. There's no time to lose in promoting business tie-ups and overseas expansion. Discussions shouldn't be limited to TEPCO reform," said a ministry official.

However, some TEPCO officials have expressed displeasure at the move. "Infrastructure companies like us are different from manufacturers. It's important to ensure stable power supply. It's not true that we should just increase our profits," one of them said.

At the same time, executives of other major power companies reacted coolly to TEPCO.

"We don't know how much of the costs of dealing with the Fukushima accident we'll be required to shoulder," one of them said.

"TEPCO's arrogance that stood out in the industry is still fresh in our memory," another commented.

The ministry and the expert panel on TEPCO reform share the view that TEPCO needs to carry out the largest-scale reforms since Yasuzaemon Matsunaga, the "king of the power industry" who established major power companies' regional monopolies in order to ensure stable power supply.

However, Japanese semiconductor and liquid crystal manufacturers and other companies that were integrated on the initiative of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry have not grown as the ministry had aimed.

As such, it remains to be seen whether TEPCO will join hands with other power companies and gain entry into the global market as the ministry envisages.

 

 

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