Cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear plant -- a task predicted to cost 86 times the amount earmarked for decommissioning Japan's first commercial reactor -- is the mother of all salvage jobs. Still, foreign firms with decades of experience are seeing little of the spoils.
A worker helps move bags containing nuclear waste in an evacuation zone in an area of Fukushima prefecture that was damaged in 2011 by an earthquake and tsunami.
A worker in a protective suit and mask levels ground at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan in February. Bids for decommissioning work on the destroyed reactors have been directed almost exclusively to Japanese businesses.
Safely dismantling the Japanese power plant, wrecked by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, will cost about $68 billion, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Dec. 9, quadrupling the previous estimate. While a contract to help clean up the facility would be a windfall for any firm with specialized technology, the lion's share of the work has gone to Japanese companies that designed and built most of Japan's atomic infrastructure.
The bidding process for Fukushima contracts should be more open to foreigners, said Lake Barrett, an independent adviser at Japan's International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. Japan has never finished decommissioning a commercial nuclear plant, let alone one that experienced a triple meltdown, Barrett said. While the Fukushima cleanup is unlike any nuclear accident in history, foreign firms that have experience decommissioning regular facilities could provide much-needed support, according to Barrett and even the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.
"Internationally, there is a lot more decontamination and decommissioning knowledge than you have in Japan," Barrett, a former official at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo. "I hope the Japanese contracting system improves to get this job done safely. There is this cultural resistance -- it is almost like there is an isolated nuclear village still."
An opaque bidding process plays to the heart of criticisms leveled by independent investigators, who said in a 2012 report that collusion between the government, regulators and the plant's operator contributed to the scale of the disaster.
Of 44 subsidized projects publicly awarded by the trade and economy ministry since 2014, about 80 percent went to the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning. The group, known as IRID, was established after the Fukushima disaster and is comprised entirely of Japanese corporations, according to the ministry's website.
Japan's trade and industry ministry awarded funds directly to only eight foreign firms during the same period. Many of the contracts had only one or two bidders.
Of about 70 contracts awarded since 2014, nine have gone to foreign companies, according to an official in the ministry's Agency of Natural Resources and Energy who asked not be named citing internal policy.
To provide opportunities for foreign companies, the ministry has created an English website for bids and also provides English information sessions to explain the contracts, the official said.
The International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning's contracts are given to its members, including Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which have partnerships and joint ventures with foreign firms, spokesman Yoshio Haruyama said by phone. While it doesn't directly contract work to companies overseas, the decommissioning group taps foreign experts as advisers and participates in international collaborative projects, he said.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has about five or six contracts through the decommissioning group, but it can't share how many partnerships it has with foreign firms, spokesman Shimon Ikeya said by phone. Hitachi has subcontracts with foreign suppliers related to the Fukushima cleanup, but it can't provide details about these agreements because they aren't public, a spokesman said by email.
Toshiba doesn't directly bid for ministry contracts and instead works with the decommissioning group, company spokesman Yuu Takase said by e-mail.
The group, which aims to "gather knowledge and ideas from around the world" for the purpose of nuclear decommissioning and was receiving over 20 billion yen in government grants in March, doesn't disclose how much of its funds ultimately go to foreign businesses, according to its spokesman. Barrett, its adviser, said he thinks it's "very low" but should ideally be 5 percent to 10 percent.
Japan's biggest nuclear cleanup isn't void of foreign technology. Toshiba, which owns Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Co., and Hitachi, which has a joint venture with General Electric Co., are tapping American expertise. A giant crane and pulley system supplied by Toshiba to remove spent fuel from the wrecked reactors employs technology developed by Westinghouse.
"We bring in knowledge from foreign companies, organizations and specialists in order to safely decommission the reactors," Tatsuhiro Yamagishi, spokesman for Tokyo Electric, said by email. While the company can't say the exact number of foreign firms involved in the Fukushima cleanup, companies including Paris-based Areva SA, California-based Kurion Inc. and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics are engaged in work at the site, according to Yamagishi.
However, foreign firms independently securing contracts is still a tall task.
"When it comes to Japan's nuclear industry, the bidding system is completely unclear," said Hiroaki Koide, a former assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, in an email. "The system is designed to strengthen the profits of Japan's nuclear village," he added, referring to the alliance of pro-nuclear politicians, bureaucrats and power companies that promote reactors.
Tokyo Electric's annual cost to decommission its Fukushima plant may blow out to several billion dollars a year, up from the current estimate of $684 million a year, the trade and industry ministry said in October. As of June, about $8.5 billion has been allocated for decommissioning and treating water at Fukushima, according to Tokyo Electric's Yamagishi.
With that much money at stake, Japan has become ground zero for a plethora of companies looking to benefit from the cleanup work. The structure of Japan's nuclear industry and the closed procurement preferred by the utilities that operate atomic plants means that the most lucrative opportunities for foreign companies are in the area of subcontracting, according to a report by the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation released in March.
"Foreign firms have long argued that the Japanese bidding process is one that is ripe for corruption due to a lack of openness and transparency," Daniel Aldrich, professor and director of the security and resilience studies program at Northeastern University in Boston, said in an email. For nuclear decommissioning "there is even less clarity and transparency due to security and proliferation concerns," he said.
SundayMonday Business on 01/01/2017
Print Headline: Japan's nuke cleanup snubs foreigners