As compensation payouts begin, Tepco pays the price for its nuclear disaster

October 9, 2011

Masato Muto, 40, works for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. in a rented one-story building. Only a clock and a calendar hang on the office walls, and most days, only angry people come through the front door.

The nuclear evacuees who come to this Tepco branch office in Fukushima prefecture are greeted two ways. First, by a letter from the company president — taped to a whiteboard by the entrance — that apologizes for the “great inconvenience” and “anxiety” caused by “the accident.” Next, by an employee such as Muto, one of the 1,700 Tepco workers dispatched to centers in Fukushima to help people collect payments for their lost jobs and homes — provided they first fill out the 60-page application form.

Seven months after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, Tepco, which operated the facility, owes $50 billion in compensation to the tens of thousands who lived close to the nuclear plant. The payments could send the company into bankruptcy, a government panel recently said. At minimum, they will handcuff the utility giant for years, forcing it to cut jobs, sell its assets and perhaps raise electricity rates for its 29 million customers.

But Muto sees the payments differently— as a way that Tepco can at last help, not antagonize. Tepco, which has collected 6,000 applications, began sending evacuees their first compensation checks Wednesday.

“The people who come here are furious — furious — about what happened,” Muto said. “They have a thorn stuck in their heart. A lot of people tell me, ‘I want to go home as soon as possible. I want my life back.’ . . . What can I do? Well, the best way to help is to let them vent their anger.” So Muto bows to the evacuees, dropping to his knees and apologizing. “This is the first step for us to then have a conversation about compensation.”


Masato Muto, 40, an employee for the Tokyo Electric Power Co., was dispatched to Fukushima in the wake of the nuclear disaster. (Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)

The compensation process has drawn ridicule. Beginning last month, Tepco distributed to evacuees not only the meaty application pamphlet, but also a 156-page instruction manual. Lawmakers criticized the application form as needlessly complicated; even Muto acknowledges that it’s too big. Most evacuees, Muto said, cannot finish the application by themselves. They often need at least two hours of consultation at one of the four Tepco assistance centers in Fukushima.

“My longest session was four hours,” Muto said. “Whew — I was so tired afterward.”

Before March 11, Muto had worked at Tepco’s headquarters in Tokyo; he’d been with the company for 16 years, since college graduation. He traveled sometimes to the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates, exploring deals to supply Tepco’s thermal power plants. Particularly in Japan, a country that reveres its biggest institutions, a job at Tepco meant stability and influence. The utility, with 37,000 employees and cozy alliances with the government, supplied electricity to the economic heart of the country. The average employee made 7.57 million yen — or nearly $100,000, at the current exchange rate.

But Tepco managed, in the first months of the nuclear crisis, to squander most of its credibility and all of its goodwill. Its president disappeared from public view, then resigned. It disclosed the meltdowns at the plant nearly two months after the fact. It spun false stories about the timeline of events at the facility, trying to pin blame on the government.

“I imagine a lot of rank-and-file employees feel embarrassed by management,” said Jeff Kingston, author of “Contemporary Japan” and a professor at Tokyo’s Temple University. “Most Japanese are proud to be an employee. But nobody ever bargained for this. Tepco set a new low for corporate behavior.”

The prestige of working for Tepco is gone, and so are many of the perks. It once operated resorts and sponsored clubs for employees; Muto was a running back on the football team. But since the disaster, Tepco has booked $23 billion in losses. Economists say the company will either go bankrupt — a likely scenario if its idled nuclear reactors don’t restart — or carry for years the baggage of debts to evacuees and lenders.

Either way, said Tatsuo Hatta, an economist from Gakushuin University, “it’s a funeral company.”

Muto says he feels no anger toward Tepco. His job is difficult, he said, but important. His boss sent him to this mountainside town in mid-April to help establish a branch office — well before compensation applications were ready.

Muto thinks he will be stationed here until at least the middle of next year. He lives in a rented apartment complex with several other Tepco employees. He has no wife or children. He is a part-time musician, and, at his apartment, he relaxes by playing the electric piano, mostly a mix of jazz and bossa nova. His fifth album came out just a few weeks ago, and a friend helped him create the CD cover art — a hazy aquatic image of primordial critters, little snails and jellyfish, the image of life anew. The album is dedicated, the back of the CD case reads, to “all victims and survivors of the Great East Japan Earthquake.”

But Muto does not try to commiserate with evacuees; his job requires listening and assistance. These days, about 30 people seeking compensation come every day to the Aizuwakamatsu help center. A few have told Muto, “You will never understand my sadness.”

“That is probably true,” Muto said.

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post's financial team.
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