September 20, 2013

On March 11, 2011, a massive tsunami literally wiped out all power to Fukushima Daiichi units #1 through #4. All emergency power supplies to all four units were also wiped out. The result was three instances of meltdowns and three buildings destroyed by hydrogen explosions. However, F. Daiichi units #5 and #6 sat on a bluff about 10 feet higher in elevation. One emergency power supply diesel survived and kept all emergency cooling systems operational for both units. As a result, F. Daiichi units #5&6 were essentially undamaged and are now fully functional.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wants both units decommissioned. He explained why, “I want a decision to be reached on the scrapping of the Nos. 5 and 6 reactors so that TEPCO focuses on accident response matters.” (Mainichi Shimbun) “I will work hard to counter rumors questioning the safety of the Fukushima plant,” he added.While this may be seen as a reasonable request to Japan’s Press and nuclear critics around the world, I feel it is a big mistake that promises to have the opposite impact on Tokyo Electric Company’s focus on accident response.

Here’s why…

The two undamaged units are being carried on Tepco’s books as assets. Such an enormous write-off threatens to complicate matters, rather than improve them. Tepco has posted more than $27 billion in net losses since the accident, largely because they have not been able to run any of their numerous undamaged nukes. The situation has been exacerbated by having to buy expensive foreign fossil fuels to operate gas-fired units that were not designed for continual operation. Currently, the company shows $7.5 billion in nuclear assets. By writing off F. Daiichi units #5&6, about $500 million in assets will vanish. This will unquestionably restrict Tepco’s ability to procure finances sufficient to maintain their current accident recovery effort. The cash-strapped utility needs all the financial clout it can muster just to maintain the status quo. The write-off can only diminish their financial capacity to clean up Fukushima. Further, by never having the ability to ever restart the two undamaged units Tepco’s long-term financial prospects will also take a severe hit. With less money over the next decade-or-so, the clean-up effort can only be worse than current plans might promise.

Abe’s short-sighted request seems to have caught many local and national officials by surprise. Industry Minister Motegi tried to support his boss saying that scrapping F. Daiichi 5&6 will provide more space to build additional wastewater storage tanks, which suggests that Tokyo expects current plans for purification and sea-release cannot be counted on. Regardless, the minister’s claim is a weak one. Motegi added that Tepco could use the two scraped units to train engineers and operators. This implies that Tepco’s current operator and engineering training centers are inadequate, which is a rather cavalier assumption. In both cases, it seems the minister is grasping for a way to provide more justification than Abe has given. On the local scene, Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato says Abe should have consulted him before going to the Press with the proposal to scrap the units. This is even stronger proof that Abe made his request literally “out of the blue”.

From the available record, it appears PM Shinzo Abe made his nuke-scrapping decision unilaterally; shooting from the hip, if you will. Thus, we can judge Abe’s decision to be ill-conceived and purely a matter of short-sighted political expediency. If Abe wants Tepco’s fullest-possible focus on F. Daiichi clean-up, he should rescind his request for decommissioning two fully-operational, economically-valuable nuclear plants.