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Vague language left gov't on hook for nuke disaster cleanup costs, but for how much?

The total cost of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear crisis, including compensation payouts and building mid-term waste storage facilities, is set to clock in at a staggering 11 trillion yen. How much of that will end up being paid by the Japanese government? How much "aid" is TEPCO going to get, all told?

Different government ministries and agencies have different ideas about where to draw that line, as do various figures in the ruling parties, so the upper limit remains fuzzy. And this lack of certitude has produced its own, new problems.

In November 2013, the ruling parties put together recommendations for how much of the nuclear disaster cleanup bill should be left to TEPCO. There were some in the parties who called for a new special measures law to be passed that would provide state funds for decontamination and other work. With public opposition brewing, however, in the end the parties said only that "the handling of operations after the present decontamination plans have been implemented will be considered from a public works perspective."

More than two years later, however, we still do not know if that "handling of operations" means decontamination work itself, or some other variety of environmental improvement. In fact, interpretations differ even among the lawmakers who thought up the 2013 recommendations, with some saying that "decontamination should be a public works project," and others declaring that "cleanup work should, as a basic principle, be TEPCO's responsibility."

The government appeared to accept the recommendations, and incorporated them -- and the uncertain statement about who was going to pay for unplanned cleanup work -- into Fukushima Prefecture recovery guidelines passed by Cabinet decision in December 2013.

The core of the matter is the growing desire to clean up the towns of Okuma and Futaba, hosts to the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and whose central parts have been designated as "hard to return" zones. According to one senior government official involved, "There was no debate about how to view decontaminating the difficult to return zones, and so the question of who would bear the cost was just left up in the air." The 2013 Cabinet decision furthermore does not specify what counts as "planned decontamination work."

So, if the government isn't going to bill TEPCO for "unplanned" decontamination work, where is the money going to come from? The government bears a heavy responsibility for pushing debate on this question down the road.

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