Japan utility behind damaged nuke plant apologizes

Associated Press
A Greenpeace protester in protective gear holds a banner as shareholders, rear, arrive for the annual shareholders' meeting of Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Tokyo on Tuesday June 28, 2011. Executives at the Japanese utility behind the nuclear power plant sent into meltdown by the March quake apologized to investors who repeatedly interrupted the shareholders' meeting with heckles, yells and questions of outrage. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
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A Greenpeace protester in protective gear holds a banner as shareholders, rear, arrive for the annual shareholders' meeting of Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Tokyo on Tuesday June 28, 2011. Executives at the Japanese utility behind the nuclear power plant sent into meltdown by the March quake apologized to investors who repeatedly interrupted the shareholders' meeting with heckles, yells and questions of outrage. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

TOKYO (AP) — Executives at the Japanese utility behind the nuclear power plant sent into meltdown by the March quake apologized Tuesday to investors who repeatedly interrupted the annual meeting of shareholders with heckles, yells and outraged questions.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata promised that the company was doing its utmost to bring radiation leaks under control. He said it would speedily compensate people forced to evacuate the area around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and farms whose products were banned because of radiation contamination.

"All of us directors apologize deeply for the troubles and fears that the accident has caused," he said at a Tokyo hotel. "The entire group will work together to resolve this crisis as soon as possible."

But the meeting was punctuated by outbursts of emotion, as one by one, shareholders, their voices shaking, said the utility had ignored warnings about the dangers of nuclear power, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant had been inadequately prepared for a tsunami, and the amount of radiation spewing into the air and water had not been fully disclosed.

One shareholder cried out that the executives should all jump into the reactor and die to take responsibility for the fiasco. Several others demanded they give up their entire pay. Another screamed that all they deserved was "seppuku," or ritual self-disembowelment.

The disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi has erased about 90 percent of the value of TEPCO stock, once considered a safe investment, and stock owners are getting no dividends. It closed Tuesday up 0.3 percent at 317 yen.

Fuel rods have melted at three of the plant's reactors after a March 11 earthquake set off a tsunami that knocked out cooling systems, causing the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. The quake and tsunami killed more than 23,000 people and damaged farms, ports and hundreds of suppliers of parts to the auto and electronics industries.

Leaking radiation forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, and the perilous struggle to contain the reactors is expected to continue into next year.

Despite the anger, many of those attending the meeting welcomed executives' remarks with enthusiastic applause.

They quickly defeated with a show of hands the first proposal from a shareholder, who demanded Katsumata be replaced in chairing the meeting by someone else, who could better address the nuclear crisis.

The top shareholders of the utility include Japanese financial institutions and the Tokyo metropolitan government.

Katsumata said management already had a majority of votes from those who had sent them in by writing or the Internet. That meant the company had no problems defeating a proposal from 402 shareholders that demanded TEPCO abandon nuclear power.

But the outrage from the public was clear by the frequent shouting. Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting, which drew more than 9,300 people, about three times usual, but could watch the proceedings from a monitor at TEPCO headquarters. The meeting lasted six hours, about twice as long as a record long meeting a decade ago.

Although most of the executives' remarks were routine, addressing earnings and power supply, the shareholder who demanded a different chair, stressed that an apology and promises were not enough and said the whole world was suffering from the nuclear disaster. She did not give her name.

TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, who has already announced his resignation to take responsibility for the disaster, told shareholders that the company was targeting mid-July to decrease the radiation leaks at Fukushima Dai-ichi under "step one," and to bring the leaks under control under "step two" in three to six months time after that.

The crisis has raised serious questions about the lax oversight of Japan's nuclear industry and prompted the country to scrap plans to rely on nuclear power for one half its electricity needs — up from its current one third.

The utility has come under criticism as bungling and slow in responding to the crisis. Some of the data it disclosed about radiation leaks turned out to be erroneous, and it did not admit to a meltdown for weeks, raising suspicions about a lack of transparency.

Renewed safety fears have caused the government to shutter the Hamaoka nuclear plant in central Japan, a region where there is a 90 percent probability of a major earthquake in the next few decades.

TEPCO's losses for the fiscal year ended March 2011 totaled 1.25 trillion yen ($15 billion) — one of the biggest annual losses ever in corporate Japan. TEPCO had a profit of nearly 134 billion yen the previous fiscal year.

Those results accounted for massive losses the utility booked from the disaster. But overall losses from the disaster are expected to be far bigger, including compensation for the thousands of people forced to evacuate from their homes around Fukushima Dai-ichi, and businesses such as farms that say products were damaged by radiation.

The company plans to sell assets to secure more than 600 billion yen ($7.4 billion) in funding but has acknowledged it likely faces more damage payments.

It reiterated that it was counting on some government aid.

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Yuri Kageyama can be reached at http://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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