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TEPCO suffers blow with anti-nuclear candidate's win in Niigata governor race

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) faces a murky future after an anti-nuclear candidate won the Oct. 16 Niigata gubernatorial election amid the utility's desperate bid to restart currently idled nuclear reactors in the prefecture.

"Public opinion against nuclear power was shown (in the election). I will keep my promise," governor-elect Ryuichi Yoneyama said after his victory was confirmed on the night of Oct. 16, emphasizing his intention to succeed outgoing Gov. Hirohiko Izumida's cautious attitude toward restarting reactors at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant.

After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, Izumida stated that he would not allow the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant as long as TEPCO, which has habitually covered up its messy handling of nuclear stations, remained as its operator. He also criticized the new safety standards set by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), saying that they did not reflect lessons from the Fukushima disaster.

As Yoneyama's victory reaffirmed the Niigata people's confidence in the path that Izumida has taken, TEPCO is likely to face a rough road before making steps into procedures to gain local consensus to resume reactors even if it passes the NRA's safety screening. TEPCO is looking to resume the No. 6 and 7 reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant to turn around its business, but if the process to restart these reactors is prolonged, it would be a big blow to the utility, because TEPCO expects to boost profits by some 240 billion yen per year by restarting the two reactors and cutting the costs of fuel for thermal power plants.

TEPCO has been working on improving management to increase earnings to cover the costs of compensation payments for Fukushima nuclear crisis victims, decontamination work and decommissioning reactors at the Fukushima plant. Expenditures on these projects, however, are expected to top the initial estimate by trillions of yen. Under such circumstances, the utility has sought aid from the government and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has started discussions at a newly established expert panel on issues such as how post-disaster cleanup costs should be shouldered and management reform at TEPCO.

Based on the discussions, TEPCO is expected to drastically revise its current business rebuilding plans by around January next year, but it would be difficult for the utility to lay out a blueprint for reconstruction without prospects in sight for reactors to resume.

There was a sense of anticipation among TEPCO officials that if ruling coalition-backed Tamio Mori was elected in the gubernatorial race, it would be easier for the company to push for restarting the reactors. However, with Yoneyama's victory, a TEPCO senior official did not hide their disappointment, saying, "The election result will have no small significance on the company's reconstruction plans since the target to restart the reactors has come under uncertainty."

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