FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN — Even as it struggled to contain the world’s worst nuclear disaster in a quarter-century, Tokyo Electric Power Co. late last month quietly set out big plans for the future: It proposed building two new nuclear reactors at its radiation-spewing Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Tokyo Electric, known as Tepco, informed Fukushima prefecture on March 26 of its desire to start building the reactors as early as next spring, local officials said. That was just two weeks after an explosion at the utility’s tsunami-crippled complex set off a cascade of catastrophes.
The proposal was then included in a formal report submitted to authorities in Tokyo on March 31 as part of an annual process designed to assess Japan’s future electricity supply.
“It was just unbelievable,” said Yoichi Nozaki, director general of Fukushima’s Planning and Coordination Department, which oversees energy matters here in the capital of the region most blighted by the biggest nuclear debacle since Chernobyl.
When Tepco notified Fukushima’s energy department of its new reactor plans, Nozaki immediately told Fukushima’s governor, Yuhei Sato, who reacted with fury. “What is going on?” he fumed. Nozaki met the head of Tepco’s local branch and told him “we definitely cannot accept” the building of new reactors. A Tepco team from Tokyo was given the same “no way” message. The electricity company, said Nozaki, was told by prefectural officials “to sort out problems on the ground first and stop thinking about new reactors.”
Tokyo Electric pressed on, declining to alter its plans and submitting them to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI, in Tokyo.
With its reputation and its finances already shredded by the events at Fukushima Daiichi, Tepco now has another fiasco to contain. Its proposal for new reactors, first reported Sunday in a Fukushima newspaper, has caused horrified dismay — and significant backpedaling by the utility.
“It was a mistake,” Hiroshi Aizawa, a Tepco official in Fukushima, said Monday. He said the company had been too busy trying to get Fukushima Daiichi under control and avoiding power cuts to revise a plan that took shape before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The disarray — on full view just as BP seeks to restart drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the scene of a spectacular blowout last year on a rig leased by the oil giant — has sharpened a question that has dogged Tepco since the tsunami slammed into its Fukushima plant: Has the scale of the disaster triggered a managerial meltdown, or is the world’s largest private electric utility simply sticking to the aloof, heedless habits of a corporate behemoth accustomed to getting its way?
“I don’t know what they’re doing,” Nozaki, the Fukushima planning chief, said of Tepco’s executives. “Ask them!”
The idea of building two new reactors at a facility that is still leaking radiation into the air and sea “is of course totally unacceptable,” Nozaki said. He now meets each morning with other senior officials to hear the latest figures on the radiation being spread by Tepco’s crippled plant.
Tepco announced last week that four reactors at the center of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi will never go back into service. At the same time, it submitted its report to METI that included a proposed timetable for constructing and commissioning two reactors — No. 7 and No. 8 — at the same complex.
“We regret that we submitted the report as it was, considering the feelings of the local residents in Fukushima,” said Hiro Hasegawa, a Tepco spokesman in Tokyo. He said the company will revise its plans as soon as it has had time to analyze the effects of the quake.
A Tepco vice president, meanwhile, went on television and declared the construction of the proposed reactors “impossible.”
The company is in shambles, its share price and credit rating plunging, its leadership disabled by ill health. Its president, Masataka Shimizu, checked into hospital a week ago, and Tepco is now being steered by its chairman, whose own reputation was tarnished by an earlier, though far less serious, nuclear accident.
Tokyo Electric has dreamed for more than 15 years of adding two reactors to the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi complex but has been repeatedly thwarted.
Nozaki said he knows that Tepco has long wanted to build the reactors but could “not understand how it could submit such a request in these circumstances.” Talking about new reactors when “so many people are scared and in difficulty . . . is completely out of the question,” he said.
More than 80,000 people have fled their homes in the coastal areas of Fukushima prefecture for fear of contamination by Tepco’s existing reactors. Farmers cannot sell their goods, and entire towns have been abandoned.
Aizawa, the Tepco official in Fukushima, said his office has been bombarded with calls from angry residents, particularly farmers. The company is now so reviled that it has covered up its name on some buildings to spare employees abuse. To try to soften the hostility, it is handing out gifts of $240,000 to towns most at risk from contamination. At least one town, Namie, said “No, thanks.”
Radiation levels in Fukushima are now declining somewhat, but Tepco’s decision over the weekend to start dumping large quantities of radioactive water into the sea has added a new source of alarm in Japan and beyond.
“Tokyo Electric may want to ignore the feelings of Fukushima residents, but this is definitely not acceptable,” Nozaki, the planning department chief said.
Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler in Tokyo contributed to this report.