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Tepco to spend ¥2.67 trillion to grow

Ailing utility plans loans, strategic investments to boost survival odds

by Tsuyoshi Inajima and Takako Taniguchi

Bloomberg

Tokyo Electric Power Co. is considering spending about ¥2.67 trillion on strategic investments through partnerships as it seeks to chart a path to growth beyond the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster.

Of the planned investments, the utility plans to borrow ¥2 trillion in fresh loans from lenders, Tepco President Naomi Hirose, 60, said in a recent interview in Tokyo. The utility will make loan requests to banks as soon as possible, Hirose said, declining to specify a time frame.

“For the sake of Fukushima’s reconstruction, we have to seek growth,” Hirose said Saturday, three days after the company released the latest plan to turn itself around after almost three years marked by mounting losses, scares over radioactive groundwater, rod removal and continuing cleanup efforts.

The financing plans outlined by Hirose are an attempt by Japan’s biggest utility to stake out a fresh course separate from the troubles that have befallen the company due to the triple meltdown. The disaster looms large over the Tokyo-based utility, shadowing everything from attempts to rebuild to employee morale.

More than 2,000 workers had left Tepco by the end of last March since the Fukushima crisis began in 2011, pushing the company to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing it to shrink overseas projects and reduce employee salaries and bonuses. Tepco’s executives, including Hirose, have voiced concern that the exodus will severely hurt the company as hundreds of talented younger workers leave.

The growth strategy in the business plan “would help Tepco make its employees believe it is returning to a normal company and stop some of them from fleeing the utility,” Shinichi Yamazaki, a Tokyo-based analyst at Okasan Securities Group Inc., said Friday over the phone.

As part of the Jan. 15 announcement, Tepco said it planned to invest in upstream energy projects and overseas electricity businesses in the 10 years through 2022.

Tepco has received “several offers” related to shale gas projects and plans to make an investment decision as early as fiscal 2014, which starts April 1, Hirose said in the interview. He declined to provide details as talks are private.

The utility’s fuel and power unit aims to cut Tepco’s skyrocketing fuel bill by teaming with partners on everything in its supply chain from upstream energy investment to power generation, according to the turnaround plan. Tepco plans to boost its LNG procurement volume to as much as 40 million metric tons per year through the partnership from current 20 million tons on its own, it said.

“To fulfill our responsibilities in Fukushima, we will need a lot of money and are being granted a goodly amount of the government’s money,” Hirose said. “We have to repay it by improving corporate value.”

The Tepco turnaround plan’s reliance on restarting idled nuclear reactors has served as a lightening rod for criticism directed at the company by foes to any restarts. All of Japan’s now 48 operable nuclear reactors are shut, forcing the nation to rely on fuel imports that helped push the current account into the largest deficit on record in November. There had been 50, but Tepco plans to decommission units 5 and 6 at Fukushima No. 1, even though they survived the disaster.

The aging and poorly protected Fukushima No. 1 plant was hit by giant tsunami caused by the March 11, 2011, mega-quake. Operators lost all power at the facility and emergency backup systems failed, causing the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Tepco has had to contend with both the continuing disaster and the challenge of surviving as a company. Tepco provides power to 29 million customers in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

As recently as Sunday, Tepco said in a statement on its website that it had detected beta radiation levels of 24 million becquerels per liter in water leaked from an area near the Fukushima plant’s reactor 3, a reminder of the ongoing challenges at the site.

The Fukushima disaster has reverberated throughout Japan, affecting everything from energy prices, company planning and a debate over the nation’s energy mix.

What to do with the 48 reactors is also a pressing concern, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying in an interview broadcast Sunday on NHK that Japan will move to complete any partially finished atomic reactors.

The Feb. 9 election for Tokyo governor may prove a litmus test for the public’s acceptance of nuclear power after former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has renounced the use of atomic power, backed candidate Morihiro Hosokawa, another former prime minister seeking the Tokyo job on an anti-nuclear platform.

Nuclear plants produced more than 25 percent of Japan’s electricity before the disaster hit. With the nationwide reactor shutdown, utilities have had to import more oil, coal and gas. As a result, Japan has posted a trade deficit for 17 straight months and the current-account shortfall widened to a record in November.

In addition to relying on reactor restarts, the turnaround plan calls for Tepco to adopt a holding company structure by 2016, assuring bond investors that the resulting subsidiaries have sufficient collateral to cover outstanding debt.

Tepco hasn’t sold bonds publicly since the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns and the company says it now plans to return to the market in the fiscal year starting on April 1, 2016.

Tepco’s shares are largely unchanged since August, when the company said it had been contending with leaks of radioactive water from storage tanks at the Fukushima plant. The shares have declined 1.6 percent since Aug. 30, compared with a 17 percent advance for the Topix index.

Net losses at the utility total ¥2.7 trillion for the three full fiscal years that ended last March 31.