TOKYO (Reuters) - Fukushima nuclear plant operator Tepco Electric's response to the world's worst atomic disaster in a quarter century has been called ad hoc and more concerned with cost than safety, but 30 months later, the utility is still in charge.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the centrepiece of Tokyo's successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics, said he would be personally responsible for a plan to cope with the legacy of the March 2011 disaster in which a massive earthquake and tsunami caused triple meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some 160,000 residents to flee their homes.
A crisis over radiation-contaminated water at the plant has revived calls to put Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) into bankruptcy as a prelude to nationalising the clean-up and shut-down of the reactors, but there is little political support for the idea given its potential fallout for financial markets, Tepco's creditors and other nuclear utilities.
With concerns over Tepco's ability to cope, policymakers are pondering ways to take the Fukushima shut-down off the utility's hands, perhaps through an agency along the lines of Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Even that, though, faces hurdles, including the likely need for new legislation, clarity on the size of the bill for taxpayers and government liability, and working out the implications for Japan's other utilities.
That means, at least for now, the government may just end up pouring in more money, leaving Tepco in charge while stepping up official oversight.
"They haven't come up with any good idea yet," said one former government official, although he said various options were being discussed. "Abe is not shy about providing government support, but I don't think he's thinking about any radical change of the structure of this company," he said, referring to calls to put Tepco through bankruptcy procedures.
Abe's government last week said it would spend nearly half a billion dollars to contain the leaks and decontaminate water at the facility. That's on top of a 1 trillion yen ($10 billion) injection of public funds last year and a 5 trillion yen government credit line for compensating disaster victims.
"Clearly the government is using state funds to extend Tepco's life, so the only way forward is to legally bankrupt the firm and make clear who is responsible, including past directors, financial institutions and shareholders," said Kazuyoshi Sato, an assembly member in Iwaki City just outside the 30 km (18.5 mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant.
Few in Tokyo support that view.
"I don't think it's right to put in taxpayers' money without Tepco going down," said ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Kono, who has long been at odds with his party over nuclear energy. But he added: "It seems I'm the only one, or one of just a few, being noisy about liquidation."
Tepco's admission in July that contaminated water had flowed into the Pacific Ocean and news that highly contaminated water was leaking from a tank storing water used to cool the melted reactor cores prompted Abe's pledge to take the lead and bolster government oversight.
Several ruling party politicians, however, said Tepco's bankruptcy - considered but rejected in the months after the disaster because authorities decided the utility was too big to fail - was not on the table now.
"Tepco is, in reality, bankrupt," said LDP lawmaker Taku Yamamoto, head of the party's panel on natural resources and energy strategy. "But under the law ... it cannot be put through bankruptcy. It must fulfil its role."
Tepco, which has racked up net losses of $27.4 billion (17.4 billion pounds) since the disaster, has cut its costs and raised its prices, but its long-term sustainability remains in doubt. It has yet to win local support to restart its Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant on Japan's northwest coast, some 200 kms from Fukushima - which could save it about $1 billion a month in fuel costs.
Under the scheme crafted to keep Tepco afloat after the 2011 disaster, the company is liable for compensation, decontamination of affected areas and decommissioning the reactors. It is supposed to use electricity revenues to pay for decommissioning, while, for compensation and decontamination, it can borrow up to 5 trillion yen from the state-backed Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Corporation.
"Our company would like to fulfil our social responsibility by properly compensating those affected by the disaster and decommissioning the reactors," Tepco said in response to Reuters queries for this article.
"If the option of corporate bankruptcy or other court-led restructuring were chosen, there is concern that those affected by the nuclear incident would not be properly compensated and there might be a large impact on financial markets," it said.
With cost estimates for compensation and decontamination at least double the 5 trillion yen credit line, and projections of the cost of decommissioning starting at 1 trillion yen, critics have long said Japanese citizens would end up paying the bill.
But putting Tepco into bankruptcy would make that inconvenient truth all too clear.
"Who would take over the clean-up and paying the people of Fukushima?" said the LDP's Yamamoto. "It would be the government. It would be tax money. And we don't know how much that will cost."
Tepco's bankruptcy could also trigger potential chaos in the corporate bond market, a key source of funds for power firms, though the utility's short-dated bonds due this year trade near par for now, reflecting investor confidence they will be paid.
"At the end of the day ... the government has a social need to keep Tepco running," said CV Ramachandran, head of Asian business for restructuring specialist AlixPartners. "If it wanted to wind-down and replace Tepco with another entity, that would have a major impact on Tepco bonds and potentially the Japanese bond markets. But this scenario is not likely."
Rating agencies, too, said the government was unlikely to risk market upheaval by pushing Tepco to the wall.
"With over 4 trillion yen ($40.2 billion) in (Tepco) bonds outstanding, the Japanese bond market would suffer a negative impact if Tepco were to default on its payments; we believe the government has an economic incentive to avoid such a scenario," said Standard & Poor's analyst Hiroki Shibata.
Tepco shares have more than doubled this year to 512 yen each, but are still just a quarter of what they were worth before the 2011 disaster.
A Tepco bankruptcy would also require clarifying the future shape of Japan's electricity sector, now controlled by 10 regional monopolies, but set to be liberalized under a law the government aims to pass this year. That would create a national power grid by 2015, and split the regional utilities into generation and transmission firms by 2020. Key details have yet to be worked out, making it hard to value Tepco's good assets.
The government is also re-doing its basic energy plan, setting out the role of nuclear and other energy sources even as it tries to restart some of Japan's 50 reactors - which used to provide almost a third of the nation's electricity but are nearly all now off-line - in the face of public safety concerns.
"The government would immediately need to present an overall plan for Japan's energy future, which would be almost as difficult to do today as it was in 2011," said Martin Schulz, a senior research fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.
Still, the growing criticism of Tepco has bureaucrats and politicians searching for some solution. "We must avoid a situation in which Tepco fails, so ultimately the government will have to step in and take on the burden," said Koichi Hagiuda, an LDP lawmaker close to Abe.
Splitting off the Fukushima project without forcing the Japanese mega-banks that hold its bonds and have extended loans to take a hit, however, would be politically touchy.
"No one will accept putting a huge chunk of money into Tepco just so bondholders and pensioners get a soft-landing," said Jun Okumura, a former industry ministry official and now a senior adviser for Eurasia Group.
All of which suggests the government may shy away from drastic change, and continue to drip-feed in more funds.
"On the surface, the government says it will 'take responsibility', but this is just a temporary expedient of using tax money," said Shigeaki Koga, a former trade and industry ministry official who proposed putting Tepco through bankruptcy in 2011. "They probably don't really intend to take responsibility."
Additional reporting by Mari Saito in TOKYO and Umesh Desai in HONG KONG; Editing by Ian Geoghegan