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Asia Economy Last Updated: Apr 18, 2011 - 6:50 AM

Japan's 'Homer Simpson' returns to take charge of nuclear crisis
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Apr 15, 2011 - 5:03 AM

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Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) President Masataka Shimizu at a press conference, Tokyo, April 13, 2011.

A surreal illustration of the challenge facing Japan with a world that has changed since its heyday as thrusting economic power in the 1980s, was provided on Wednesday when Japan's 'Homer Simpson' returned after an apparent nervous breakdown to take charge of the country's nuclear crisis.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) President Masataka Shimizu gave a press conference on Wednesday having been mainly missing in the month since the devastating earthquake on March 11.

According to The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Shimizu was not present at TEPCO's emergency response headquarters between March 16 and 21, complaining of fatigue, and was hospitalized for nine days from March 29, complaining of dizziness and high blood pressure.

The fact that the government allowed the 67-year old, who buckled under pressure, back to take charge of an ongoing crisis of the utmost gravity, speaks volumes for the dearth of leadership in Japan when it needs it so urgently.

David Pilling, Asia editor and former Tokyo bureau chief of The Financial Times, wrote this week that TEPCO’s loss of power generation with about one-quarter of its normal output capacity down, is already having a profound impact before the hot summer months when demand surges. He said the government is expected to exercise a legal provision, not invoked since the 1974 oil shock, to restrict electricity use this summer to just three-quarters of last year’s level.

Pilling wrote: "Tokyo Electric Power is Lehman Brothers times 10. It really is too big to fail. The company supplies 29% of Japan’s electricity to more than 2m businesses and 26m households in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Not only is Fukushima Daiichi now out of permanent action, 13 of the company’s 17 nuclear reactors are offline, as are half of its 20 oil-fired thermal plants and both of its coal-fired thermal plants."

On Wednesday after the customary public apology -- o-wabi kaiken - -  Masataka said his health was a private matter

Shimizu acknowledged that TEPCO has received many inquiries about compensation from evacuees around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, and that an office would be set up as soon as possible to respond to such queries.

When asked about the raising of the accident assessment of the Fukushima plant to the worst level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, Shimizu said: "We gravely accept that assessment because we have caused trouble to many nations."

When asked about how he would take responsibility for the crisis, Shimizu only said: "Now is not the time to comment on my own future."

Many in the government are reported to distrust TEPCO, due to delays in providing information on the nuclear plant malfunction.

The Yomiuri Shimbun says it took TEPCO about 15 hours to vent steam from the nuclear reactor vessel at the Fukushima facility's No. 1 reactor, despite having recognized the need to do so by the evening of March 11.

A major reason for the delay is believed to have been the malfunction of an automatic switch for a pressure-regulating valve on the containment vessel due to the loss of power, compounded by a delay in opening the valve after switching the device to manual operation.

According to some observers, Prime Minister Naoto Kan's on-site inspection of disaster-stricken areas on the morning of March 12 may also have contributed to the delay. "TEPCO might've held off the venting so the prime minister wouldn't be exposed to radiation," one observer said.

From the evening of March 11, the Prime Minister's Office and other authorities had asked TEPCO repeatedly to vent the reactor, but the operation did not take place until 10:17 a.m. after Shimizu had arrived at the main office in Tokyo on March 12.

NHK, the state television broadcaster reported Friday that it is still difficult for the TEPCO to determine when the work to restore reactor cooling systems at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility will begin. The company says more time is needed to install makeshift water tanks in order to contain the highly radioactive water used to cool the reactors.

The contaminated water has pooled inside turbine buildings and tunnels, hampering efforts to restore reactor cooling systems. Removal of the wastewater is necessary before restoration work can begin.

TEPCO collected wastewater samples from the No.1 and No.2 reactors on Wednesday, and found that radioactivity levels had increased dramatically during the past week.

According to TEPCO, 400 becquerels of iodine-131 and 53 becquerels of cesium-134 per cubic centimeter were detected in the wastewater of the No.1 reactor. These levels are 6 times and 38 times higher than a week ago respectively. In the No.2 reactor, 610 becquerels of iodine-131 and 7.9 becquerels of cesium-134 per cubic centimeter were detected. These levels are 17 times and 8 times higher than a week ago respectively.

On Wednesday, the power company completed the transfer of roughly 660 tons of wastewater from the Number 2 reactor tunnel to a turbine condenser.

However, the work to transfer contaminated wastewater from other reactors has not started yet because there are not enough facilities available.

TEPCO plans to use makeshift storage tanks and a steel mega float to hold most of the highly radioactive water.

On Thursday, the company completed the installation of makeshift tanks in the compound of the nuclear plant, which can contain 1000 tons of water.

However, TEPCO plans to build more tanks to hold 27-thousand tons of wastewater by the end of May.

Homer Simpson

Fans of the American cartoon series 'The Simpsons' would be aware that Homer works at the Springfield Nuclear Plant.

In one episode, Mr. Smithers, the sidekick of the scarecrow-like chief, Mr. Burns, is asked to find a replacement to cover while Smithers is on vacation.

"I've got to find a replacement that won't outshine me," Smithers says as he searches the company database. "Perhaps if I searched the employee evaluations for the word 'Incompetent.'"

He gets a total of 714 names on the screen.

"Better be more specific... 'lazy,' 'clumsy,' 'dim-witted,', 'monstrously ugly.'" [same results follow] "Oh, nuts to this! I'll just go get Homer Simpson."

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