By Mari Saito and Kentaro Hamada
TOKYO (Reuters) - Spinning off the clean-up project at Japan's wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant from the rest of operator Tokyo Electric Power's business could be an option in the future if the decommissioning runs smoothly, the company's president said.
Nearly three years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the plant, Tokyo Electric (Tepco) is still struggling to contain radioactive water at the site and turn around its battered finances.
"Paying compensation (to evacuees), decontamination, and the work at the Fukushima plant; there is a lot of work to be done ... We have to continue doing this, while maintaining the workers' safety, their sense of responsibility, duty and keeping up their morale," said Naomi Hirose in an interview with Reuters on Saturday.
Hirose said if working conditions improve significantly at Fukushima and worker shortages become no longer a problem, the utility could consider hiving off the Fukushima decommissioning from the rest of the business, a suggestion that had been made by policymakers since the disaster. But for now, Hirose said he remained opposed to such a scheme.
Japan this week approved a plan by Tepco, Asia's largest utility, which aims to make savings in costs of $46 billion over 10 years, upgrade fossil fuel power plants and join alliances with other firms to procure liquefied natural gas (LNG) more cheaply.
But central to Tepco's revival plan is the restart of the reactors at Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world's biggest nuclear power plant, as early as July, which faces staunch opposition from a local governor who has repeatedly called for the company's liquidation.
Governor Hirohiko Izumida of Niigata, home to the Kashiwazaki plant some 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of Tokyo, said this week Tepco's plan does not hold shareholders and banks accountable. He has also said that Tepco must not be allowed to consider restarting its other nuclear facilities before a comprehensive review of the Fukushima disaster.
Tepco also said in its latest revival plan that it may have to raise electricity prices by as much as 10 percent if Kashiwazaki restarts are further delayed.
The unprecedented, 30-year decommissioning plan for Fukushima relies heavily on technological breakthroughs and on Tepco managing to get enough staff to work there.
Tepco doubled pay for contract workers at the plant to around $200 a day last year after criticism over its handling of their pay.
Previously a Reuters investigation had found that the pay of some workers was being skimmed off by sub-contractors, some had been hired under false pretences, and some contractors had links to organized crime gangs.
Hirose said Tepco does not permit workers' pay to be skimmed by the various companies in the chain of contractors operating at Fukushima, but admitted that verifying whether laborers' wages had actually been docked or not was complex.
"We did not increase (wages) to give out more money to those (firms) in the middle. Raising wages from 10,000 yen ($100) to 20,000 yen was difficult for us ... of course we want the money to reach the correct place," he said.
($1=104.27 Japanese yen)
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)