Fukushima operator's chief quits in face of public anger

The President of the embattled operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant has quit following months of withering criticism over his handling of the planet's worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.

Bowing in front of a packed press conference, Masataka Shimizu apologised to the nation yesterday before announcing his widely expected resignation. "I will step down to take managerial responsibility for undermining confidence in nuclear power and causing trouble for society," he said as his successor, Toshio Nishizawa, looked on. Mr Nishizawa, a managing director, will officially take over in June. Mr Shimizu sparked particular anger with his widely ridiculed performance during the worst of the crisis. He disappeared from public view in March, later emerging from hospital after apparently being treated for hypertension and stress.

At his few meetings with the press, his gnomic, robotic replies had journalists scratching their heads. He took nearly a month to visit Fukushima, home to the crippled plant, where the prefecture's governor angrily snubbed him. Tepco is worth 83 per cent less than when he took over in June 2008.

Mr Shimizu was yesterday flanked by the board of directors of the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), all wearing the same identical blue utility suits they donned after the crisis erupted in March, when the Fukushima plant was battered by a huge earthquake and tsunami. Last week the company admitted for the first time that one of the plant's reactors went into meltdown hours later.

Announcing a record corporate loss of 1.25 trillion yen (£9.4bn) for the past financial year, the managers said they would cancel dividends, waive board fees and impose a 20 per cent pay cut on the company's entire regular workforce. Some analysts expect Tepco's eventual losses to be 10 times that amount as it calculates the cost of bringing the crippled plant safely to cold shutdown and compensating nearly 100,000 nuclear refugees forced to evacuate their homes.

Japan's government sparked anger last week after announcing a plan to bail out the hugely indebted utility to stop it going bankrupt. Yukio Edano, the chief government spokesman, also said banks might have to waive some of the roughly $24bn (£15bn) in outstanding loans extended to the company before March. "Japanese people will not support using tax money otherwise," he said.

Japan's largest utility, Tepco is also now its most unpopular after a string of blunders and cover-ups at the Fukushima plant, which has been leaking radiation for over two months. Many experts now suspect the company knew that the uranium fuel in Reactor One had melted 24 hours after the 11 March quake struck, but chose not to reveal it. Its decision to cool leaking reactors with seawater has washed over 10 million litres of toxic water into the sea.

The mystery about the first tense days after the quake and tsunami struck deepened yesterday with Mr Edano's revelation that his government had not received computer-generated estimates of radiation dispersal on 12 March. The government spokesman said a fax of the estimates was not passed on to either him or the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan.

Critics have accused Tepco and the government of colluding to hide the data, which could reveal high radiation over Tokyo and other areas.

The Tepco president said yesterday that the Fukushima crisis left the company unable accurately to forecast future profits or losses.

"Our three priorities for now are bringing the power plant under control, responding to the victims of this nuclear accident and establishing a stable supply of electricity to our customers," he said.

The company added that it is setting up a disaster response centre in Fukushima to help refugees return to their homes as soon as possible.

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