Image: A remote-controlled robot in crippled nuclear plant building
Ho  /  REUTERS
A remote-controlled robot called Packbot gets its picture taken by another Packbot in the No. 1 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in northern Japan.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 4/19/2011 10:40:48 PM ET 2011-04-20T02:40:48

Japanese consumers would be on the hook for nuclear damage payments and earthquake reconstruction costs under two tax plans the government is considering, officials said Tuesday.

The Kyodo News agency said one plan would raise electricity customers' charges to help cover claims against Tokyo Electric Power Co. from people who suffer losses from the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The increase would come in the form of a higher electricity source-development tax, which is collected from customers as part of their electricity bills.

TEPCO must pay people forced to evacuate from the region surrounding the nuclear plant, but officials said the power company may not be able to pay all the claims.

Story: Japanese comforted or cramped in evacuee shelters

"While TEPCO will be primarily responsible for damages payments, the government may have to support the firm," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda told a press conference Tuesday. "We are considering taxation, the electricity charge and other measures to enable the government to shoulder some of the burden."

A second plan would raise to 8 percent Japan's current 5 percent consumption tax for about three years, Kyodo said. The extra $273 billion ($22.5 trillion yen) would pay for reconstruction of the country's northeastern region, said senior lawmakers in the Democratic Pary of Japan.

The March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami caused about $300 billion in damage, experts have estimated. 

Japan's exports fell in March at a faster pace than economists expected, in a sign that shipments will continue to weaken and hurt economic growth after last month's twin disaster.

The data announced Wednesday suggest Tokyo's trade balance will swing to a deficit as some companies grapple with a shortage of electricity and needed parts.

Japan's economy is likely to contract in the second quarter and then resume growing in the third quarter as efforts to rebuild the northeast take hold. But damage to supply chains and factory output could linger, depriving the export-focused country of a vital contribution to gross domestic product and setting the stage for further easing by the central bank.

"As supply chains are expected to recover in late May, the drop in exports may prove short-lived," said Yuichi Kodama, economist at Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance.

"But due to power supply constraints expected in the summer, a full pickup in exports is unlikely until at least the end of this year. The Bank of Japan is likely to be prompted to ease its policy further in coming months."

Exports fell 2.2 percent in March from a year earlier, more than a median forecast for a 1.5 percent annual fall. That marked the first decline in 16 months. Imports rose 11.9 percent from a year earlier against a forecast for a 6.0 percent annual rise, trade data issued by the Finance Ministry showed.

Exports dropped 7.7 percent from February on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

The quake disaster left 27,000 people dead or missing, made tens of thousands homeless and damaged the TEPCO nuclear power plant in Fukushima, leading to widespread evacuations. About 135,000 people are living in nearly 2,500 shelters set up in schools, gymnasiums and community centers along the northeast coast, while the government races to build temporary homes and prepare public housing units for them, a process expected to take five months.

Internal Affairs Minister Yoshiro Katayama told reporters it had been clear even before the disaster that "some sort of reform of spending and revenues was necessary. The debate over the fiscal situation is not something that began with this disaster."

The government hopes to avoid issuing new bonds to fund an initial emergency budget, expected to be about $48 billion (4 trillion yen), due to be compiled this month.

But bond issuance is likely for subsequent extra budgets, which will only make it harder for Japan to rein in its debt, already running at twice the size of the $5 trillion economy.

Katsuya Okada, secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ), said on Sunday taxes had to rise to repay new government bonds that will be needed to pay for reconstruction.

A poll by the Nikkei business daily showed about 70 percent of Japanese voters would support a tax hike, but want unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan to be replaced.

The Yomiuri newspaper reported that the government had ruled out raising income and corporate taxes.

Nuclear plant progress
The tax ideas were floated as TEPCO took a significant step toward easing the nuclear plant crisis by pumping highly radioactive water from the basement of one of its buildings to a makeshift storage area.

Removing the 25,000 metric tons (about 6.6 million gallons) of contaminated water in the basement of a turbine building at reactor No. 2 of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will help allow access for workers trying to restore vital cooling systems that were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.

Slideshow: Triple tragedy for Japan (on this page)

It is but one of many steps in a lengthy process to resolve the crisis. TEPCO projected in a road map released over the weekend that it would take up to nine months to reach a cold shutdown of the plant. But government officials acknowledge that setbacks could slow the timeline.

The water will be removed in stages, with the first third of it to be handled over the coming 20 days, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. In all, there are 70,000 tons (about 18.5 million gallons) of contaminated water to be removed from the plant's reactor and turbine buildings and nearby trenches, and the entire process could take months.

TEPCO is bringing the water to a storage building that was flooded during the tsunami with lightly contaminated water that was later pumped into the ocean to make room for the highly contaminated water.

The operator plans to use technology developed by French nuclear engineering giant Areva to reduce radioactivity and remove salt from the contaminated water so that it can be reused to cool the plant's reactors, Nishiyama said, adding that this process would take "several months."

Interactive: Crisis in Japan (on this page)

Once the contaminated water in the plant buildings is safely removed and radioactivity levels decline, TEPCO hopes, workers can begin repairing the cooling systems for the reactors Nos. 1, 2 and 3, which were in operation at the time of the tsunami. Workers must also restore cooling functions at the plant's six spent fuel pools and a joint pool for all six units.

When the tsunami struck, units 5 and 6 were going through a regular inspection. On March 20, they were put in cold shutdown, which is when a reactor's core is stable at temperatures below 212 Fahrenheit.

Worst may be over
Also Tuesday, a senior official at the U.N. nuclear agency suggested the worst may be over as far as radiation leaks at Japan's stricken reactor complex are concerned.

Denis Flory said he expects the total amount of radiation releases to be only a "small increase from what it is today" if "things go as foreseen." Flory, a deputy director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, emphasized Tuesday that his forecast was based on TEPCO's roadmap.

Flory told reporters the IAEA would work in a consultative role with Japan to help meet its targets and details of that role are being discussed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cherry blossoms offer solace in Japan

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Timeline: Crisis in Japan

How events have unfolded since a 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear power disaster.

  1. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Above: Timeline Crisis in Japan
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster

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