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N-disaster price: Tepco to pay $50 bn?

Masato Muto, 40, works for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in a rented one-story building. Most days, only angry people come through the front door.

business Updated: Oct 10, 2011 20:56 IST

Masato Muto, 40, works for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in a rented one-story building. Most days, only angry people come through the front door.

The nuclear evacuees who come to this Tepco branch office in Fukushima prefecture are greeted two ways. First, by a letter from the company president — taped to a whiteboard by the entrance — that apologises for the “great inconvenience” and “anxiety” caused by “the accident.” Next, by an employee such as Muto, one of the 1,700 Tepco workers dispatched to centres in Fukushima to help people collect payments for their lost jobs and homes — provided they first fill out the 60-page application form.

Seven months after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, Tepco, which operated the facility, owes $50 billion in compensation to the tens of thousands who lived close to the plant. The payments could send the company into bankruptcy, a government panel recently said. At minimum, they will handcuff the utility giant for years, forcing it to cut jobs, sell its assets and perhaps raise electricity rates for its 29 million customers.

But Muto sees the payments differently— as a way that Tepco can at last help, not antagonise. Tepco, which has collected 6,000 applications, began sending evacuees their first compensation checks last week.

“The people who come here are furious — furious — about what happened,” Muto said. “They have a thorn stuck in their heart. A lot of people tell me, ‘I want to go home as soon as possible. I want my life back.’ What can I do? Well, the best way to help is to let them vent their anger.” So Muto bows to the evacuees, dropping to his knees and apologising.

The prestige of working for Tepco is gone, and so are many of the perks. It once operated resorts and sponsored clubs for employees. But since the disaster, it has booked $23 billion in losses. Economists say the company will either go bankrupt or carry for years the baggage of debts to evacuees and lenders.

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