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Gov't may shift nuke accident, reactor decommissioning costs onto new power suppliers

The government is moving to bill new electricity suppliers for a portion of nuclear reactor decommissioning costs and compensation payments related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was learned on Sept. 7.

After decades under regional utility monopolies, the electricity supply market was opened to competition in April this year. The government apparently fears that the old monopolies such as Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) lose too many customers to new suppliers and they may no longer be able to cover the high costs of decommissioning old reactors or compensate the victims of nuclear accidents, hence the move to shift some of the financial burden onto new market entrants.

However, these costs were originally supposed to be covered by the nine big utilities, and the government's moves would essentially transfer that burden onto the Japanese people, making a clash more than likely.

Under the current system, large utilities must cover nuclear reactor operating expenses -- including eventual decommissioning -- from electricity bill income. Also, TEPCO receives monies to cover Fukushima nuclear disaster compensation claims from the government-licensed Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corp. (NDF), which is in turn funded by all the large utility companies.

The new system being considered by the government would spread the financial burden of nuclear accident compensation and reactor decommissioning to new electricity suppliers, lightening the load on the big utilities. The government estimates the total cost for reactor decommissioning plus Fukushima nuclear disaster compensation paid before the NDF was established at some 8 trillion yen. The new power suppliers would likely pass on their share of these costs to their customers, resulting in monthly power bills up to about 200 yen higher than at present for an average three-person household.

However, forcing customers of the new electricity firms to pay for the old utilities to decommission their reactors and for TEPCO's nuclear disaster liabilities runs counter to the goals of liberalizing the electricity market, which was intended to push down prices through competition. It would also in essence be corporate welfare for the big utilities operating nuclear plants.

A sub-committee to debate the new system will be established under the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy reporting to the minister of economy, trade and industry. The committee will decide on what direction to take by the end of this year, with an eye to submitting a bill to revise the Electricity Business Act to the ordinary Diet session next year.

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