REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– In a sizable taxpayer bailout, Japan's central government on Friday announced that it would give $11.5 billion in public funds to help the utility that runs the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The money will help the cash-poor Tokyo Electric Power Co., known as Tepco, in its multi-year effort to dismantle reactors that suffered meltdowns following a March 11 earthquake-triggered tsunami that flooded the coastal facility 200 miles north of Tokyo.
Officials say the funds -– made up of contributions from the government and the nation's nuclear power plant operators -– are a preliminary installment to help Tepco fund the gigantic cleanup effort that many believe may take decades to complete.
The money was allocated only after a beleaguered Tepco agreed to a restructuring plan that would cut $32 billion in costs over the next decade and more than 7,000 jobs.
The utility has come under criticism for its handling of the crisis, including a lack of timely information given to the government and the media during the early hours of the disaster in mid-March.
Many of the 80,000 or more residents evacuated from communities surrounding the Fukushima plant have complained of the bureaucracy and mountains of assistance required to apply for aid promised by the utility in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Others complain that Tepco has tried to cover up the amount of radioactivity that has spilled into the air, water and soil, possibly infecting fish, staple crops and drinking water with toxic radioactive isotopes.
A recent independent study by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research found that the disaster released twice as much radioactivity as estimated by Tepco and government officials. The utility faces billions of dollars in compensation claims from victims displaced by the crisis.
In an effort to see that the utility is not driven into insolvency, the government is offering the bailout through zero-interest bonds that must eventually be paid back.
Japanese taxpayers will most likely not complain of the injustice many Americans expressed when Congress gave $700 billion in bailout money to major banks and Wall Street investment companies, experts said.
"It's difficult to make that comparison because there's not really the separation of church and state, so to speak, here in Japan," said political consultant John R. Harris.
"Tepco is part of the system and not really seen as separate from the government. It's infrastructure."
But other government projects, including an expensive program to rebuild breakwaters and seawalls along the tsunami-stricken northeastern coast, have been heavily criticized as a waste of taxpayer money that rebuilds technology already proved to be weak in the face of disaster.
"For many people, rebuilding the seawall is jaw-dropping, replacing the same outdated technology that didn’t work the first time," Harris said. "They see it for what it is -– a total pork barrel and another nail in Japan's coffin."
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Unit Three of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Getty Images