Tepco gets to keep nuclear reactors despite shareholder ire

The utility at the heart of Japan's atomic crisis, Tokyo Electric Power Co, won institutional shareholder...

Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Picture: AFP

The utility at the heart of Japan's atomic crisis, Tokyo Electric Power Co, won institutional shareholder backing on Tuesday to keep its reactors in the face of anger from rank-and-file stockholders seeking an end to nuclear energy.

Opponents failed to win enough support for a motion filed at the utility's semi-annual general meeting that would have forced managers to scrap all reactors and stop building new ones. Although put forward each year, the proposal this year took on greater resonance with radiation still escaping from Tokyo Electric's nuclear plant in Fukushima, 240km north of the capital.

Despite overwhelming support for the proposal among thousands at the meeting in Tokyo, they were unable to sway institutional investors such as Dai-ichi Life Insurance, which owns most of the stock.

The motion's defeat after a six-hour meeting triggered shouting and protests among people who had travelled to Tokyo to confront executives of the utility, known as Tepco.

"Japan has a lot of earthquakes and after this accident I just don't think there is such a thing as safe nuclear power here," said Takako Kameoka, who came from Saitama.

"It was obvious there was a majority here for the proposal and they didn't tell us in advance how many proxy votes they had," said Kameoka, originally from Fukushima.

For a power company, and an economy, that relies on nuclear power to generate 30 percent of its electricity, the result comes as a relief.

Nuclear power by May still supplied 20 percent of Japan's power although 35 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are shut.

"The question is, can Japan do without nuclear power?" said

Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co. "How much are the Japanese people willing to sacrifice in terms of standards of living?

"The (anti-nuclear) sentiment is understandable," Akino added, "but the reality is that this is difficult without considerable sacrifice to economic growth and activity."

SCORN

Shareholders at the rowdy meeting heaped scorn on executives running the utility over their handling of the March disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the company's subsequent slide to near bankruptcy.

In May, Tepco reported an annual loss of $15 billion and since the disaster, its shares have plummeted 85 percent, its corporate rating has fallen to junk status and $36 billion has been wiped off the company's market value.

Security was tight as shareholders and protesters converged on the Prince Park Tower Hotel.

The meeting started with thousands of stockholders packed into the venue and several hundred unable to find seats to interrogate Tepco executives over their actions following the 11 March calamity.

Three reactors went into meltdown after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the plant, forcing 80,000 residents to evacuate as engineers battled radiation leaks, hydrogen explosions and overheating fuel rods. The earthquake and tsunami left nearly 24,000 people dead or missing.

The utility's chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, opened the meeting with an apology.

"We're working to get out of this crisis as quickly as possible," he said to scattered applause and one angry stockholder who shouted at the board members.

Katsumata paused before answering hundreds of written questions from shareholders as one woman, who appeared on the verge of tears, shouted out that he should have quit on 11 March.

One attendee suggested the board "jump into the reactors and die," before being forced by security guards to sit down. Another said the board would have been forced to perform ritual disembowelment had they lived in an era when such actions were deemed necessary to preserve honour.

NEW BOSS

Among groups intent on voicing their anger at Tepco, was Greenpeace, which asked demonstrators to meet in front of the hotel as shareholders arrived.

Shareholders on Tuesday approved appointments to the 17 member board including Toshio Nishizawa, allowing the board to formally name him as the company's next president.

His predecessor, Masataka Shimizu, quit to take responsibility for the radiation crisis, which damaged the livelihoods of business people, farmers and fishermen in the Fukushima region.

Tepco faces a compensation bill to those victims that could exceed $100 billion.

When asked about corporate responsibility, Katsumata deferred the question to Shimizu, eliciting a laugh from the audience.

Japan's government approved a taxpayer bailout for the utility this month. The proposal faces weeks of wrangling in parliament, however, as opposition politicians and some ruling-party lawmakers seek to either amend or scuttle it.

Tepco will struggle to make payments if the bailout plan is not implemented.

The appointment of Nishizawa, an insider who has worked at Tepco since graduating from college in 1975, may disappoint shareholders seeking to clean house at the utility.

Nishizawa's approval, which many of the rank-and-file shareholders in the hall voted against, was greeted with groans and shouting from the packed crowd.

"A fundamental structural overhaul is needed at the board level to enable Tepco to rebuild its reputation and recover financially," said Glass Lewis, a U.S. proxy voting company that advises institutional investors which own more than $17 trillion in assets. Glass Lewis released the statement on its website ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

Katsumata in the end had little to cheer Tepco's battered shareholders. When asked for some "hope" by one, the chairman replied: "Unfortunately, there is no clearly visible hope right now."

Shares of Tepco ended trading in Tokyo unchanged from yesterday's close of 316 yen, compared with a 0.7 percent gain in the benchmark Nikkei 225 index.