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TEPCO refusing to pay for decontamination work planned since end of FY '13

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear plant, has refused to foot the costs of decontamination work that has been planned and conducted after a December 2013 Cabinet decision, it has been learned.

The Environment Ministry is poised to demand money it is expected to spend on decontamination of areas with high radiation levels -- where the government has deemed that it is difficult for residents to return in the foreseeable future -- from TEPCO. The ministry began this year to decontaminate such an area in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Okuma, but there is no prospect that TEPCO will foot some 20 billion yen in the costs of the work that the ministry will temporarily shoulder.

As the Environment Ministry is in conflict with the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry that supports TEPCO's position, a massive amount of taxpayers' money is being invested in such work without clarifying who should bear the expenses.

The Act on Special Measures concerning the Handling of Environment Pollution by Radioactive Materials, which was enacted in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear crisis, requires TEPCO to "try to swiftly pay for decontamination when and if demanded."

Moreover, the guidelines for Fukushima recovery, approved at a Cabinet meeting on Dec. 20, 2013, state that the government should demand that TEPCO foot the expenses of decontamination and the construction of temporary storage facilities for radioactively contaminated waste that were implemented or being planned. However, the guidelines do not mention whether TEPCO should be required to pay the costs of decontamination and relevant projects that were not being planned when the guidelines were approved.

According to the Environment Ministry, TEPCO has agreed to foot the costs of decontamination in "difficult-to-return" zones, which was performed on a trial basis before the Cabinet approved the guidelines. However, TEPCO has refused to pay for decontamination of main roads in such zones on the grounds that the utility is not obligated to pay for these projects, which were conducted after the Cabinet decision.

Hiroshi Ono, head of the Environment Ministry's decontamination and temporary storage planning coordination team, has raised questions about the utility's response.

"It's unreasonable to decide whether to pay for the costs depending on whether decontamination was planned before or after the Cabinet decision, although decontamination is based on the same special measures law," Ono said. "We understand that we can demand payments for decontamination of the difficult-to-return areas."

However, the economy ministry's Agency for Natural Resources and Energy takes a different position.

"The Cabinet decision doesn't state that the government can demand the costs for decontamination that was not part of the original plan. We've instructed TEPCO to follow the Cabinet decision," said an agency official.

An official of TEPCO's public relations division said, "We'll respond to the matter in accordance with the special measures act, the nuclear power accident compensation system and the 2013 Cabinet decision, while listening to explanations from concerned ministries and agencies and consulting with them."

Since the government has decided that TEPCO must foot the costs of decontamination, the 32 trillion yen which will be set aside for disaster recovery projects over a 10-year period does not include decontamination costs. Therefore, if TEPCO refuses to pay for decontamination costs, the government will be forced to secure additional resources.

"The Environment Ministry and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy should hold negotiations to draw a conclusion on the matter," said a senior Finance Ministry official.

The Environment Ministry has demanded TEPCO foot a total of 381 billion yen in decontamination costs on 12 occasions, and the power company has basically complied with the demands, paying 350.5 billion yen of the amount so far.

The decontamination work in Okuma is the first in the difficult-to-return zones. The work began in summer this year and is scheduled to be completed at the end of this fiscal year. The cost of decontaminating 95 hectares in the town is estimated at over 20 billion yen.

The town of Okuma is asking for decontamination of the remaining 305-hectare area while the towns of Futaba, Namie and Tomioka as well as other local bodies in the prefecture are requesting full-scale decontamination.

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