TOKYO – The head of the Japanese utility that owns the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant says last year's meltdowns sapped away money it might have used to switch to alternative energy, making it all the more important for the company to stick with nuclear.
Naomi Hirose, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., said Thursday it is "quite troubling" that the government, responding to public opinion, is moving toward eliminating nuclear power, but he said TEPCO would follow whatever energy policy Japan adopts.
The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami wiped out the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and caused extensive radioactive meltdowns that took months to control and will take decades to clean up. It was the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
TEPCO was saddled with huge compensation and cleanup costs after the nuclear crisis. The company was nationalized in July after receiving a trillion yen ($12.8 billion) public bailout.
The company had attempted some diversification of its energy mix before the tsunami. TEPCO built three mega-solar power plants and more than a dozen windmills with its affiliate, Eurus Energy Holdings Corp.
But the company's difficult financial picture following the crisis means it doesn't have the money to invest in renewable energy, Hirose told The Associated Press at TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo.
"We tried to develop those renewable powers, but unfortunately after 3/11 we do not have much money and we probably cannot spend as much money to build renewable energy," he said.
Following last year's disaster, the government is finalizing a new energy policy to reduce or eliminate nuclear power. Surveys show the Japanese public overwhelmingly supports a complete phase-out of nuclear energy.
Before the accident, Japan relied on nuclear power for one-third of electricity needs and was planning to increase that to 50 percent by 2030. Since then, all of Japan's 50 reactors have been shut down for routine tests, and in the face of strong public opposition, only two have been restarted.
"Honestly, a change of policy from 50 percent (nuclear dependency) to zero is quite troubling," he said. But he added that TEPCO will follow any energy mix the government decides as part of its energy policy.
He said the impact on the company "could be very big" if the government sets a major nuclear phase-out target. He said that would force TEPCO to make significant changes in policy and management.
Hirose, 59, assumed the top post at the struggling company in June with the task of turning it around. A resumption of TEPCO's idled reactors in northern Japan would help, but gaining local support for that would be difficult, he acknowledged.
"It is true that in order to be in healthy financial condition, nuclear power is helpful," he said, referring to its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata, northern Japan, which has seven reactors idled for inspections. "But we do not have any specific schedule for a restart."
Hirose said it is preferable to have diverse energy sources, including nuclear energy, "not just for energy security but also for the price."
Hirose vowed to fully assess the damage and cause of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.
Multiple investigations have blamed a cozy relationship between government and nuclear industry for safety lapses that allowed the meltdowns to happen. One report called the disaster "man-made."
The Fukushima plant has largely been stabilized but decommissioning it entirely will take decades since the cleanup of its badly melted reactors requires unprecedented work, research and development of technology.