Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the embattled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, declared early this year that it will not repay radioactive cleanup costs in Fukushima Prefecture, forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden, The Asahi Shimbun has learned.
The government, which did not release TEPCO’s statement, apparently accepts the refusal, in a tacit understanding to prevent the cash-strapped utility from being driven into bankruptcy.
Documents obtained by The Asahi Shimbun through a freedom of information request showed that TEPCO in February made clear its intention not to pay the full cleanup costs.
Under a special measures law designed to deal with radioactive waste, TEPCO is required to pay back costs involved in the decontamination operation that the government shouldered. The government is decontaminating areas around the plant that are highly polluted with radioactive substances.
The Environment Ministry, which is in charge of the cleanup, has asked TEPCO to repay a total of 40.4 billion yen ($415 million).
The utility has repaid 6.7 billion yen to date.
In a document dated Feb. 21 sent to the ministry, TEPCO declined to pay most of the first invoice in November last year.
“The company reached a conclusion that it is too difficult to pay,” the paper stated.
In a reply to the ministry’s request for further explanation on the utility’s refusal to pay, TEPCO listed reasons why it is not repaying the money, totaling 7.4 billion yen for 95 projects, in a document dated Feb. 27.
The total sum the ministry asked the company to pay in that instance was 14.9 billion yen, including the figure in a second bill, involving 118 projects.
TEPCO also suggested that the ministry should consider settling their disagreement over the payment at the science ministry’s center for alternative dispute resolution. The mechanism was set up to mediate between parties that failed to settle compensation claims for damages from the nuclear disaster.
One of the payments TEPCO declined to make is 105 million yen to fund an Environment Ministry preliminary survey ahead of the construction of interim storage facilities to hold radioactive soil removed and other waste in the decontamination effort.
The company refused to pay, saying, “A preliminary survey and other studies are part of the projects that the government should undertake in accordance with its policy line.”
TEPCO also refused to pay 440 million yen for an experimental program that assesses the effectiveness of new decontamination technology and 960 million yen for public relations efforts.
“These steps are not based on the special measures law,” it said.
The Environment Ministry argued in a paper dated March 1 that, “How to interpret the special measures law is within the jurisdiction of the government, and TEPCO has the responsibility of paying.”
But the ministry has yet to take any steps to settling the dispute at the science ministry’s center for alternative dispute resolution. According to one estimate, the cleanup cost will total more than 5 trillion yen.
But TEPCO’s refusal so far to pay the full amount involved in cleanup, and the government’s failure to force the payment, showed that there is a tacit understanding between the two parties to prevent the utility from going into bankruptcy.
TEPCO crafted its rebuilding plan on the premise of receiving up to 5 trillion yen in financial assistance from national coffers. But the plan has effectively fallen apart.
The company expects to pay a total of 3.8 trillion yen in damages to affected residents. As of the current fiscal year alone, the government has set aside 1.3 trillion yen for the decontamination operation.
Many experts say they suspect that TEPCO is waiting for the government to finally decide to inject taxpayer money into the decontamination operation by continually refusing to repay the costs the government covered.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are now calling on the government to pick up the cleanup tab on behalf of TEPCO. The industry ministry welcomes the proposal.
On the other hand, the Finance Ministry wants the utility to pay the decontamination costs out of its revenues from increasing electricity rates.
(This article was written by Shinichi Sekine and Toshio Tada.)