Japan utilities post $16 bln loss, outlook clouded on reactor restarts

TOKYO, April 30 Tue Apr 30, 2013 7:00am EDT

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TOKYO, April 30 (Reuters) - Japan's biggest regional electricity monopolies posted combined losses of $16 billion for a second year and face more red ink as restarts of their nuclear reactors fall behind schedule and a weaker yen raises costs to import fossil fuels for power generation.

The losses mean that Japan's once mighty power companies may have to embark on politically difficult moves like seeking bigger consumer rate increases or approach the government for other forms of assistance.

It will also mean that they will be required to boost imports of fossil fuels to make up for the shortfall from reactors that have been idled by the Fukushima nuclear disaster two years ago.

Some of the companies have already responded with price increases for customers, which go into effect on Wednesday, after the government approved them. It has warned the operators to keep cutting costs.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is wary of a voter backlash against higher prices from an industry that even before Fukushima charged some of the highest rates in the world.

"The plain and simple fact is that they either have to restart nuclear or raise rates, or some combination of both which is what is happening," said Penn Bowers, an analyst who covers the utilities at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Tokyo.

"The amount of nuclear utilization presumed by the companies appears to be reasonable although somewhat optimistic in terms of timing," he said, adding it is possible some of them might return to quarterly profits later in the business year.

Combined losses among the country's listed nuclear operators for the year to March 31 totalled almost 1.6 trillion yen ($16.30 billion), about the same as the previous year.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, the operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, said when it was given approval to raise prices last year it would have one of its reactors at Kashiwazaki Kariwa station running by the end of this month.

But the country's new nuclear regulator, set up with more independence after the Fukushima catastrophe exposed lax oversight of the industry, won't finalize new safety standards till July. Operators also face costly upgrades to meet the rules.

COMPANIES' LOSSES

Tokyo Electric reported on Tuesday an annual loss of 685.29 billion yen, the last of the utilities to report earnings.

Kansai Electric Power Co, Japan's second-biggest regional monopoly, Kyushu Electric Power Co and Shikoku Electric Power Co said in their applications to raise rates they expect to get five reactors running by July.

Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric, which on Tuesday reported combined losses of 576 billion yen in the year through March 31, will increases prices for residential customers from Wednesday.

Kansai Electric officials would only say they hope to get at least one reactor operating by the end of September, when asked about restarts at the company's earnings briefing.

Only two of Japan's 50 reactors are running and the decision by the previous government to start them up last year was met with the biggest protests in decades and contributed to its defeat in polls in December.

The two reactors operated by Kansai Electric will go offline for refueling in September and have been given an exception by the regulator.

YEN WEAKNESS

Without reactors running, the utilities have been forced to aggressively turn to fossil fuels instead, especially costly liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The fall in the value of the yen means they face a fuel import bill of 3.8 trillion yen this business year, double the year before the Fukushima disaster, according to a recent government study.

The yen is down about 12 percent this year.

In the year ended in March, Japan imported a record 87 million tonnes of LNG and 106 million tonnes of thermal coal, also a record.

Only two of the nine listed utilities eked out an annual profit in the last two business years and all but one of them has now withheld official earnings forecasts, citing a lack of certainty over reactor restarts.

Hokuriku Electric Power Co, the country's least nuclear-reliant utility, posted a profit of 98 million yen in the year through March. Chugoku Electric Power Co, the sixth-biggest, had a loss of 21.95 billion yen, compared with a profit of 2.5 billion yen a year earlier. ($1 = 98.1500 Japanese yen) (Additional reporting by Risa Maeda; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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