Environmental crises bad but not always fatal for businesses

April 22nd, 2011By Category: Uncategorized

There are some who would consign the Tokyo utility embroiled in Japan’s worst-ever nuclear plant disaster to the corporate graveyard.

Its share price has collapsed by 80%, it may take a year or more to regain control of leaking nuclear reactors, and compensation claims could run to an eye-watering $120 billion.

Yet Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) will probably survive and the company might even go on to prosper. There are plenty of precedents of companies emerging from major disasters—even if self-inflicted.

Just think back a year to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which ranks as one of the world’s biggest environmental calamities.

The share price of the culprit, BP PLC, has largely recovered since the April 20, 2010 explosion, which spilled more than 200 million gallons of crude oil in the four months it took to cap the burst Deepwater Horizon well a mile (1.6 kilometers) beneath the sea.

Despite an estimated $40.9 billion in costs from the disaster, the energy giant is forging ahead with new ventures and seeking to explore again in the Gulf of Mexico, after a moratorium on deep-water drilling was lifted in October.

Right now, TEPCO’s path to recovery looks somewhat less certain but analysts say it holds cards that make it likely the government will do what’s necessary to keep it alfoat—even if in a new guise. For one, it’s the main source of power for the Tokyo region—home to 30 million people and a heartland of Japanese manufacturing.

“Government support will be forthcoming because TEPCO is really too big to fail,” said Thomas Grieder, analyst for Asia-Pacific energy at IHS Global Insight.

That’s not to say the utility won’t end up paying in some form for the radiation leaks and other disruptions from its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that was wrecked by the March 11 tsunami that walloped northeastern Japan, killing about 25,000 people.

“For TEPCO, this is obviously going to have a very long lasting financial impact, and also hurt its reputation as a leading electricity generator,” Grieder said.

Investors dumped 1.06 trillion yen of its shares last month, though its share price has recovered slightly since.

TEPCO has sought a 2 trillion yen loan to help tide it through the initial emergency. Last week, it said it expects to pay 50 billion yen in an initial round of compensation to the nearly 80,000 residents who were evacuated from near the plant due to radiation leaks.

Investment bank Merrill Lynch estimated TEPCO could face compensation claims of 2.4 trillion to 3 trillion yen if it takes six months to regain control of the nuclear reactors—the best-case scenario under the company’s plan for ending the crisis. That could rise to 10 trillion yen if it takes two years.

The company faces many billions of yen more in costs in the years it will take to clean up and close down the plant.

TEPCO has laid out a blueprint for getting Fukushima Daiichi’s overheating, radiation leaking reactors into a cold shutdown within six to nine months, but regulators say prospects are uncertain.

The company will likely seek limits on its liability based on Japan’s 1961 Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage. It exempts plant operators from paying compensation for accidents caused by a “grave natural disaster of an exceptional character or by an insurrection.”

Unlike BP, TEPCO has few overseas assets it can sell to raise cash, and its leeway for raising already high electricity rates is constrained. The company has said it is considering job cuts and other moves to reduce costs, but has given no details.

“Everything hinges on the law,” said Paul Scalise, an expert on Japan’s power industry and research fellow at Temple University in Japan. “TEPCO will go bankrupt otherwise.”

The government will likely opt for a compromise: alternatives mentioned so far include setting up a joint industry fund to help cover some of the costs, or issuing zero or low-interest loans to TEPCO to tide it over the crisis.

Ultimately, TEPCO appears likely to follow the example of BP and other major corporations—most of them in the chemical and energy sectors—that eventually bounced back from major disasters:

Exxon Mobile Corp is the world’s largest publicly traded company, despite the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill.

Union Carbide Corp, responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak that killed more than 15,000 people and sickened hundreds of thousands of others, is now owned by Midland, Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. It has sought to settle remaining compensation claims.

So has Chisso Corp, the Japanese chemicals company whose methylmercury emissions beginning in the 1950s caused debilitating Minamata nervous system disease, one of the country’s worst industrial pollution cases.

Many publicly listed companies with huge ranks of investors, such as BP and TEPCO, are simply too big to let fail, says Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor specializing in accidents involving high-risk technologies.

Some get away with just a slap on the wrist. Others keep getting contracts because there are few alternatives, he says.

Japan looks certain to remain heavily reliant on nuclear power, which provides 30% of its energy and at 6.1 yen per kilowatt hour is one of Japan’s cheapest sources of electricity, in terms of operating costs, says Scalise.

But the current crisis has prompted Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other top officials to promise a thorough review of the nuclear power industry and its regulators.

For while TEPCO’s nuclear crisis is Japan’s worst so far, and in global terms second only to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, it is certainly not the first.

The company was not sufficiently prepared for such a severe disaster, “there is no mistake about that,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

In the previous worst accident, in 1999, fuel reprocessing workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing them by machine. Hundreds of workers were exposed to radiation and thousands of people were evacuated as a precaution. Two workers later died.

A 1997 fire and explosion at Tokaimura, north of Tokyo, exposed at least 37 workers to low doses of radiation.

Those accidents involved other companies. But TEPCO itself has safety violations that stretch back decades. Malfunctions at TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant on Japan’s northwest coast following a 2007 earthquake pushed the company into a loss for the fiscal year ended March 2008.

Such mishaps are frightening but Perrow believes there is a certain inevitability to many industrial accidents.

He says that despite new drilling rules imposed since the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a high-tech system for capping blown out wells and containing spills, and stricter oversight of the industry, deep-sea drilling remains highly risky.

Even the most rigorous safeguards and tightest regulation never seem to entirely eliminate the risk of disaster, says Masaaki Kanno, an economist at JP Morban.

“Technology is progressing and every time we have an unexpected disaster it’s easy to make excuses that we didn’t expect it and so on,” Kanno said. “In that sense there may be some progress, but not enough.”

Story originally published in our sister-site, Japan Today.

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