Tokyo Electric Says Reactor Crisis Response Was ‘Best Possible’

Tepco President Masataka Shimizu
A file photograph from 2010 of Masataka Shimizu, president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Photographer: Toshiyuki Aizawa/Bloomberg

Tokyo Electric Power Co. for the first time defended its response to the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, with Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata rejecting claims the utility was slow to react.

Katsumata took charge after President Masataka Shimizu, 66, was admitted to hospital for high blood pressure. Tepco, as the company is known, moved quickly to pour seawater on the plant’s reactors after the March 11 quake and tsunami knocked out its cooling systems, he said.

“There wasn’t any hesitation in using sea water” on the reactors, Katsumata, 71, said at a press briefing today, responding to criticisms this step was delayed out of concern the atomic units would be rendered useless. The company did “the best possible” to deal with the accident, he said.

Shimizu hasn’t faced reporters since attending a March 13 press conference, two days after the 9-magnitude earthquake struck northeastern Japan. Prime Minister Naoto Kan yesterday said Tepco wasn’t adequately prepared for the tsunami that shut down the plant’s cooling systems. Tokyo’s governor attacked the company’s response to the crisis as slow.

“The company is a symbol of what is wrong with Japan and what happens when there are no checks and balances,” said Edwin Merner, Tokyo-based president of Atlantis Investment, which manages about $3 billion in assets.

“Action is needed, not words and promises,” Merner said. “Heads will roll and some figure head is needed to take the blame. Fine, but then what? Solving the problem is the main task, but there’s little a new president can do at this point.”

Ill From Overwork

Shimizu has been taking the lead at the company’s head office in central Tokyo in Tepco’s response to the incident, spokesman Takeo Iwamoto said March 24. Shimizu became ill “through overwork” for a few days after March 16, and later recovered, spokesman Kazufumi Suzuki said March 27.

Shimizu was hospitalized yesterday. He won’t be gone from his post “for long,” Katsumata said today.

Katsumata stepped down from the top job in 2008 after a temblor damaged Tepco’s biggest nuclear power plant at Kashiwazaki Kariwa, caused some radiation to leak and stoked public mistrust about its safety.

Katsumata, who joined Tepco in 1963 according to Bloomberg data, became president in October 2002 after Hiroshi Araki and Nobuya Minami, chairman and president at that time, stepped down to take responsibility for faked safety reports at three nuclear power plants.

Tsunami Defense

“It’s undeniable their assumptions about tsunamis were greatly mistaken,” Prime Minister Kan said in parliament yesterday. “The fact that their standards were too low invited the current situation.”

Shimizu will be under pressure to step down in the wake of the worst reactor crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, investors, analysts and experts have said. Tepco shares have plunged 78 percent since the March 11 quake.

Shimizu proposed visiting the Fukushima Prefecture governor Yuhei Sato to apologize for the accident on March 22, but was asked to deal with events at the power plant first, Tepco spokesman Takashi Kurita said.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara attacked Tepco’s reaction to the crisis on March 25, after meeting with Sato. “Their response has been no good at all,” he said. “It’s been slow.”

Tepco said March 28 it had overstated the level of radiation in water on the floor of the No. 2 reactor’s generator building. The level was 100,000 times normal, not 10 million times as earlier reported, Vice President Sakae Muto said in a briefing. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency gave the utility a verbal warning not to repeat the mistake, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Tepco Candidates

Having Katsumata in charge rather than Shimizu “doesn’t make any difference as Tepco is losing the initiative, while the government plays a bigger role,” said Hiroki Shibata, a Standard & Poor’s credit analyst covering Tepco. “There was criticism of Tepco’s slow response and disclosure” under Katsumata when the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant was damaged.

Any successor for the top job at Tepco is likely to come from the existing pool of executives. A Tepco president is often selected from among those holding the dual title of director and vice-president, according to the company’s website. The utility has never appointed anyone to the post from outside the company.

Norio Tsuzumi, Takashi Fujimoto, Masaru Takei, Masao Yamazaki, Makio Fujiwara and Muto are Tepco’s executive vice presidents, with Tsuzumi the oldest at 64, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi crisis comes less than four years after the 6.8-magnitude quake that shut the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant. Tepco knew in 2003 the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant was located near a fault that could cause a more powerful earthquake than the one that damaged it in 2007, according to documents Tepco filed to a trade ministry committee.

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