Reactor Restarts & Why TEPCO Should Die To Spare Japan

TEPCO has started another PR effort. The current president of TEPCO met with local mayors near Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the nuclear plant TEPCO hopes to restart. The Niigata governor had previously voiced his opposition to any restart of the plant. More importantly the mayors of the local towns the plant is located within have a more direct say in any restart, they don’t appear warm to the idea either. TEPCO signed agreements with the local governments that “consent” would be obtained for operation of the plants. This isn’t legally binding but TEPCO admits operating without it would be difficult. They don’t clarify how it would be difficult or if it truly could prevent the plant from operating. The mayor of Kashiwazaki made it very clear that he was opposed to any restart of the plant. He also told the head of TEPCO in front of the press about his displeasure that TEPCO went ahead with their plan to restart the plant without any consultation of the local government. TEPCO and the Japanese government hatched a plan to rehabilitate TEPCO that hinges on restarting Kashiwazaki Kariwa to generate money they hoped would help pay for dealing with Fukushima Daiichi and the yet to be paid compensation of those displaced by the disaster.

Then there is part two of TEPCO’s PR plan. Their “secret weapon” Lady Barbara Thomas Judge. TEPCO hired this corporate lawyer back in February of 2013 to be part of the corporate image rehab team staffed by westerners. TEPCO hoped these people could somehow fix their damaged reputation and went about this as a priority rather than real systemic change.

MsBurns

This February press photo has an ironic similarity to Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear plant owner in the cartoon The Simpsons. This week TEPCO re-announced her joining their effort and re-branded her as their new head of safety claiming she is a “nuclear safety advocate”. Sadly, much of the media failed to realized they hired her months before and this was both nothing new and not really an accurate representation of Judge.

Her background is as a corporate lawyer and has sat on many corporate boards, mostly in the financial sector. She also currently sits on the board of a nuclear power company elsewhere. Her only actual nuclear industry job was as an “honorary” member of a UK agency that was trying to sell and restructure nuclear assets.

Judge came clean about why she was hired as TEPCO’s PR hack but only a few of the media caught it.

She believes that educated Japanese women are key to spreading her nuclear message. “In every country that I’ve ever been to, talking about nuclear, the group that’s the most against nuclear power are the better educated women,” she said. “Women trust other women. I think if you have respected women on board – journalists, teachers, doctors, mothers who have babies after all – those women will be more credible than anybody else. “The secret weapon for Tepco should be to have women doing the public outreach work.”

Released as part of this incredibly ham handed effort by TEPCO is this rather goofy picture of Judge. Judge went on in the press conference to state a number of falsehoods chronically promoted by the nuclear industry that overstate their place in energy and society. The focus was on this set of tired falsehoods and why they think Japan should be dependent on nuclear power rather than on anything TEPCO has actually done to reform. The body of evidence over the last two years has shown these claims to be not the case, this was apparently the best TEPCO’s secret weapon had. TEPCO has also trotted out some other female employees as part of their effort to sway the female public.

The concept that Judge, peddling some stale nuclear industry talking points would somehow sway educated women in Japan (or anywhere) is extremely insulting. It has similarities to the JAEA “Angry Wife” debacle from last year. Even others within the nuclear industry doubt Judge’s PR dance will work. The reality that TEPCO is so clueless that they thought this would work and put considerable resources into hiring and repeatedly putting Judge in front of the media shows how inept and clueless TEPCO remains. TEPCO as a corporate entity can’t learn, relies on old tricks and has not changed.

While TEPCO conducted their PR efforts even worse news has been coming out of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Even increasing contaminated water is being found near the sea. A whopping 900,000 bq/liter of beta emitters including strontium 90 were found near the unit 2 intake canal in a groundwater monitoring hole. TEPCO only recently began this testing effort even though the nearby canal was full of highly radioactive water in 2011. They also admit it could be leaking to the sea. Port fish have been becoming more and more contaminated and increasing levels of tritium have been seen in the port.

It was also announced over the weekend that the radioactive sludge tanks for the ALPS system are continuing to fail testing and they don’t know when that problem will be solved. Earlier testing found the tanks burst when dropped upside down. This means more delays in the entire water management plan. The one thing TEPCO has been consistent in is not having a plan B.

TEPCO also again had to admit incorrect information after an outside agency found errors. This time it was internal exposure calculations for workers that were underestimated. TEPCO released new information after the government agency overseeing this caught the error.

A recent finding in Fukushima City, far from the Daiichi site, a 1.7 million becquerel hot spot was found on a building roof. Over two years later these kinds of findings show how wide spread and problematic the disaster really is.

Nuclear companies race to restart reactors

Four companies have already applied for reactor restarts. All are newer PWR reactors. The NRA is stating that the first three plants would take their staff 6 months to process the applications. TEPCO has decided to hold back on their application to the NRA for Kashiwazaki Kariwa after the Niigata governor insisted TEPCO must obtain prefecture and local agreement before applying for any restart with the NRA. TEPCO’s president attempted to offer a plan where they would apply for a restart and try to obtain local consent at the same time, the governor flatly refused this plan. TEPCO’s president in his effort to obtain cooperation from the local governments insisted the company can’t sustain a third year of losses. Again confirming TEPCO’s motivations are financial first. While the local mayors signed off on a filtered vent plan, neither seem willing to give TEPCO any restart approval.

Niigata’s governor while being a member of the LDP is considerably younger than many politicians in the party. He was in office during the 2007 earthquake and minor accident at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant. He expressed his distrust for TEPCO and how information was mis-handled out of the central government in this March 2011 interview.

Some of the nuclear companies in Japan are planning to not only restart reactors but planning to apply to operate some old ones beyond 40 years. This is explained by the high cost of decommissioning that many did not properly set aside money for. If they can somehow gain permission to restart aging nuclear plants they can eek out profits for a few more years. This tactic in the US has proven problematic as old plants operate until something expensive breaks. This also increases the potential for a serious accident.

The nuclear forward at any cost plan doesn’t seem to be going over well. The Japan Times called TEPCO’s effort to restart Kashiwazaki Kariwa “deplorable” and TEPCO’s threat that they would again raise power rates if they didn’t get it as “blackmail”. They also point out that the fault under the reactors at Kashiwazaki Kariwa is suspected to be active. If the NRA finds this to be the case, TEPCO will have wasted substantial amounts of money on the attempt to restart the plant. TEPCO also has no resources available if there were to be another nuclear accident at Kashiwazaki Kariwa. They are already essentially bankrupt and living off of government handouts.

Politics and restarts

People in Fukushima are obviously not happy with the plan for restarts and have not seen anything change since the LDP took office. LDP politicians visited the region and gave more vague campaign statements with no substance or meaning.

In something that we see repeated again and again in the business pages, it is pointed out that the old guard in Japan refuses any notion of change. This has been seen in the Keidanren, Japan’s business lobby group who has staunchly demanded reactor restarts and no change of course at all in Japan. Meanwhile businesses in Japan run by younger more forward thinking entrepreneurs have separated themselves from the Keidanren in frustration over the group’s inability to deal with a changing world.

William Pesek details how these “New Japan” companies are flourishing by embracing the changing world rather than fighting it and how Japan’s political leadership could well learn some lessons from them. These companies found solutions to the challenges in Japan that work well at their companies, from staffing to integrating more women into the workplace. Meanwhile the old guard still flounders with these issues, refusing to really engage women or younger people in the decision making. The “New Japan” companies continue to expand worldwide. Uniqlo is opening stores around the world, Softbank has built solar plants in Japan and just recently bought US cell phone company Sprint.

The head of Rakeuten called the current business climate in Japan “Galapagos Syndrome” and said Abe should force old companies to “adapt or die”. Rakeuten has innovated a marketplace that allows international sales by small businesses and sellers around the world. These “New Japan” companies currently are outliers in Japan’s business community.

Where TEPCO falls within the adapt or die concept seems pretty clear. What isn’t clear is if the government can adapt and do what needs to be done to move forward.

 

 

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