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TOKYO (Reuters) - Nearly two years after a massive earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japan is failing to keep a pledge to tap global expertise to decommission its crippled reactors, executives at nuclear contractors from the United States and Europe say.
The result, they warn, is that a process expected to take more than 30 years and cost at least $15 billion could take longer and cost more as contracts are channeled through domestic heavyweights such as nuclear reactor makers Toshiba Corp and Hitachi Ltd, and general contractors such as Taisei Corp.
A review of bidding records by Reuters shows companies from outside Japan have failed to win any of the 21 contracts awarded this year to develop technologies crucial for the unprecedented job of scrapping the four damaged reactors at Fukushima.
"There appears to be a desire to treat this as a science project and reinvent the wheel," Jeffrey Merrifield, senior vice president of U.S. nuclear engineering firm Shaw Group Inc's power division told Reuters.
Contracts awarded since January represent only the initial work at Fukushima. But a half-dozen executives at companies with nuclear industry experience raised questions about the Japanese government's and Tepco's oversight of the process.
Some executives worry that being shut out now risks their ability to tap a growth market, since Japan could scrap dozens of reactors over the coming decades. Most asked not be named for fear of jeopardizing their ability to win future work in Japan.
Takuya Hattori, president of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, a group representing the nuclear industry in Japan, said the government has not been responsive to complaints about the bidding process. "They are shutting that criticism out incredibly deftly," said Hattori, a 36-year veteran of Tokyo Electric Power Co Inc, the operator of the Fukushima plant.
A 9.0 earthquake on March 11 triggered a 15-metre tsunami that smashed into the 40-year-old seaside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, setting off a series of events that caused its reactors to start melting down.
Hydrogen explosions scattered debris across the complex and sent up a plume of radioactive steam that forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents near the plant about 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
The repeated failures that dogged the government and Tepco in the months after the disaster undercut confidence in their response to the disaster and dismayed outside experts, given corporate Japan's reputation for relentless organization.
After that, Japan promised to accept more outside assistance.
The Fukushima plant was declared to be in "cold shutdown" a year ago, a stable phase when water used to cool fuel rods remains below its boiling point. That marked the start of a decommissioning process that could take 40 years.
Under a roadmap drafted by Tepco, radioactive fuel rods will be removed from Reactor No. 4 starting next November. After that, melted fuel inside three other reactors damaged by meltdowns and hydrogen explosions would be extracted. The work is projected to take more than a decade.
A government oversight panel has estimated it will cost $15 billion to decommission the reactors, not counting for the costs of disposing of radioactive waste.
But large uncertainties hang over the overall cost of the disaster. Tepco recently said compensation for evacuated residents and decontamination of areas outside the boundary of the Fukushima plant could double from previous estimates to almost $125 billion.
Louisiana-based Shaw Group worked on clean-up projects after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents and in decommissioning eight U.S. commercial reactors.
"There seems to be a real desire to rely on Japanese contractors to do this work," Merrifield said. "You can try and do it all yourself, which takes a lot more time without benefit of prior experience, making a lot of mistakes along the way."
But an executive with a Japanese nuclear firm said that given the long-term nature of the clean-up project, it makes sense to go with firms at home.
"Foreign firms simply sell their product without providing back-up services or maintenance. We can't sign a contract with a company that we can't get in touch with immediately and one that will rush to deal with any problems right away," the executive said.
The majority of contracts for Fukushima have been awarded directly by Tepco, which outsources decontamination and debris-clearing to general contractors. Decontamination contracts outside of the plant site are handled by Japan's environment ministry and local governments.
Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has so far allocated about $11 million to Toshiba Corp, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Hitachi GE Nuclear to fund technology development for the year to March. That includes a project to develop sensing robots that can enter highly radiated areas to pinpoint the site of the meltdown.
"This is a project we are pursuing with taxpayer funds, so we believe it is our No. 1 priority to be transparent," said Kentaro Funaki, director of the ministry's nuclear accident restoration office.
Funaki said METI was pushing to double the bidding period to four weeks and pointed to a recent contract offered by Japanese radiation management firm Atox Co Ltd specifically to foreign contractors as a sign of increased openness.
METI and the heavy manufacturers held workshops in March and April to gather information on foreign technology that could be used at Fukushima.
British Amec PLC, Areva, Westinghouse and the Idaho National Laboratory pitched technologies that can be used to remotely inspect and repair damaged reactors.
Japan's three major nuclear companies say they post notices of bids on their websites.
Hitachi GE Nuclear posts bid notices on its website in both English and Japanese. The company said it was working as quickly as possible to restore and rebuild Fukushima and the short bidding periods were not designed to shut out foreign firms.
Toshiba said it posted contracts on its website, but deletes them after a vendor is selected. Contracts are awarded by an outside panel of experts with the highest score given to technology and cost. Toshiba declined to comment on the lack of foreign involvement in research contracts.
Mitsubishi Heavy recently posted a notice on its website that it would soon invite bids for equipment to investigate the pressure containment vessels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Japan's government and Tepco have emphasized the importance of international involvement in the Fukushima clean-up. In an interview with Reuters in October, Tepco president Naomi Hirose said the utility was seeking expertise from all over the world.
To be sure, U.S. and European companies have had some success.
California-based Kurion and French nuclear giant Areva designed the first water purification systems at Fukushima. That was followed by equipment supplied by Toshiba and Shaw that doubled Tepco's ability to process contaminated water. The latest water purification equipment made by Toshiba and Utah-based Energy Solutions was installed earlier this year.
"I would tell you that if the roles were reversed, Americans would want American firms leading the way," said John Raymont, president and CEO of Kurion. "For companies that have the special know-how that is transferable, the doors are open."
Shaw's Merrifield said his company was no longer working on any projects in Fukushima. Shaw sold its stake in nuclear plant company Westinghouse Electric Co to Toshiba for $1.6 billion in October.
Many of Japan's 50 nuclear plants are expected to be decommissioned in the coming years. The Japanese government has pledged to eliminate nuclear power from the energy mix by the 2030s and popular opinion is turning against the industry.
"At the end of the day, it's not about just Fukushima," said one executive at an overseas engineering company, who asked not to be named because of the company's business interests in Japan. "You get in now, establish a relationship and build trust and there is a lot of work that you can do."
Additional reporting by Maki Shiraki, James Topham, Aaron Sheldrick and Kimiteru Tsuruta; Edited by Bill Tarrant