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Tepco can't yet be trusted to restart world's biggest nuclear plant: governor

A man watches waves break into anti-tsunami barriers after a storm in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer
A man watches waves break into anti-tsunami barriers after a storm in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

By Antoni Slodkowski and Kentaro Hamada

NIIGATA, Japan (Reuters) - Tokyo Electric Power Co must give a fuller account of the Fukushima disaster and address its "institutionalized lying" before it can expect to restart another nuclear station, the world's largest, said a local government official who holds an effective veto over the utility's revival plan.

"If they don't do what needs to be done, if they keep skimping on costs and manipulating information, they can never be trusted," Niigata Prefecture Governor Hirohiko Izumida told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

Izumida must approve the embattled utility's plans to restart the reactors at Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world's biggest nuclear complex on the Japan Sea coast some 300 kms (180 miles) northwest of Tokyo.

A former economy and trade ministry bureaucrat who has emerged as a leading critic of Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, Izumida said he would launch his own commission to investigate the causes and handling of the Fukushima crisis and whether strengthened regulatory safeguards were sufficient to prevent a similar disaster.

Izumida, 51, declined to provide a timetable for completing that review - a process that could force the utility to scrap or abandon one of the key assumptions behind its turnaround plan.

"If Tokyo Electric doesn't cooperate closely with the prefecture nothing will be solved," he said. "Unless we start we won't know," he added when asked how long his review could take. "If they cooperate with us, we will be able to proceed smoothly. If not, we won't."

Even if Japan's nuclear safety regulators approve Tepco's restart plans for its Niigata reactors, Izumida can effectively block it because of the utility's need to win backing from local officials. That gives Izumida, a political independent, a platform for calling for a wider reform of Asia's largest listed electricity utility, which provides power to 29 million homes and businesses in and around Tokyo.

REMOVE TEPCO FROM FUKUSHIMA CLEAN-UP

Izumida urged Japan's government to strip Tepco of responsibility for decommissioning the wrecked Fukushima reactors, and consider putting it through a taxpayer-funded bankruptcy similar to the process used to restructure Japan Airlines.

Without that kind of sweeping restructuring, Izumida said, Tepco could be left without the resources needed to ensure the safety of its remaining nuclear plants.

In its current form, the utility threatens to be distracted by how to fund the dismantling of the Fukushima reactors over the next 30 years and the more immediate problem of containing contaminated water at the Fukushima site, Izumida said.

"Unless we create a situation where 80-90 percent of their thinking is devoted to nuclear safety, I don't think we can say they have prioritized safety," he said.

Izumida also called on the government to make more than 6,000 workers involved in decommissioning at Fukushima public employees. A Reuters investigation of working conditions at the plant found widespread abuses, including skimmed wages and the involvement of illegal brokers.

"The workers at the plant are risking their health and giving it their all. They are out in the rain. They are out at night," Izumida said. "The government needs to respect their efforts and address the situation."

A Tepco spokesman said the utility would cooperate with Izumida's investigation. "Safety is our utmost priority and we are not acting on an assumption of nuclear restarts," said Yoshimi Hitotsugi. "We want to work on this issue while gaining the understanding of the local population and related parties."

BEHIND SCHEDULE

Tepco has posted more than $27 billion in losses since a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The disaster knocked out cooling systems, triggered meltdowns in three reactors and a radiation release that forced more than 150,000 people from nearby towns to evacuate.

It is behind schedule on its initial business turnaround plan, which had called for firing up at least one reactor at Kashiwazaki Kariwa by April.

The utility says it can return to profitability in the business year to March without restarting the sprawling complex. But if all seven of the Niigata reactors were operational, Tepco says it would save $1 billion in monthly fuel costs.

The utility's admission in July - following months of denials - that the Fukushima plant was leaking radioactive substances into the Pacific Ocean was evidence that Tepco has not changed, Izumida said, adding the utility developed a culture of "institutionalized lying."

He said that unless the utility changes its corporate culture he won't be able to trust it to run the nuclear plant in the prefecture.

"There are three things required of a company that runs nuclear power plants: don't lie, keep your promises and fulfill your social responsibility," Izumida said.

(Editing by Kevin Krolicki, Edmund Klamann and Ian Geoghegan)

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