Japan Quake Hurt Automakers, Power Co.

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

TOKYO – The mammoth earthquake that ravaged northern Japan this week did more than take lives and trigger radioactive leaks. It nailed some of the most important industries undergirding growth in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Details of the economic fallout were still emerging days after Monday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake shook the Sea of Japan coast. But early repercussions stretched from Japan’s top automakers to the country’s biggest power company.

Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries, the maker of Subaru vehicles, halted production at some factories because a key parts supplier, Riken Corp., was damaged by the temblor.

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Meanwhile, fears of an electricity shortage in the nation’s capital swelled after the world’s biggest nuclear power plant was shut down indefinitely because of safety concerns. Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s largest utility, was scrambling to ramp up conventional power output after closing the quake-damaged Kashiwazaka-Karima facility in Niigata prefecture, in north-central Japan.

“We will work to the utmost to avoid damage to the economy,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Thursday. “For the factories that suspended operations, the related ministries are striving hard for their early resumption.”

Monday’s quake, which killed 10 people and caused a slew of problems at TEPCO’s nuclear plant, including a fire and leaks of radioactive material into the ocean, has wreaked havoc companies with factories in the region and created a logistics nightmare with damaged roads.

Autos and electric power are key to Japan’s export-oriented economy, which is staging a healthy recovery from more than a decade of doldrums. While any lasting impact on overall growth will likely be limited, even a small blip would be unwelcome.

“Naturally the impact will be negative, but the government will likely increase spending in public works to repair bridges and roads so there should be some offsetting effects,” said Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at JP Morgan in Tokyo.

The auto companies’ troubles stemmed largely from damage at a factory run by Riken, a supplier of key transmission and engine parts.

Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. announced late Wednesday they would temporarily halt some of their lines for lack of components as Riken repairs its facilities. Honda and truckmakers Mitsubishi Fuso and Hino joined their ranks on Thursday.

“It’s usually deafening with all the equipment running. But we’ve had to shut everything down,” Riken spokesman Takashi Fujii said while giving a tour of the damaged plant to reporters. “The equipment is very sensitive and it needs to be on a level surface. But most of it was tilted in the quake or completely moved out of position.”

Riken said about 80 percent of the damage had been repaired as of Thursday afternoon and that it was hoping to restart early next week.

Analysts said the delay _ if short enough _ probably wouldn’t affect domestic or overseas deliveries for big players such as Toyota, which has enough inventory to cover a few days of lost output.

Elsewhere in the quake zone, Fuji Xerox Co. halted a damaged printer plant.

For Sanyo Electric Co., Monday’s rumble was edgy close call.

In 2004, one of its semiconductor plants in the region was hit by an earthquake that also registered 6.8 magnitude. That ended up hurting the company’s earnings.

Sanyo briefly closed the plant again after Monday’s quake but reopened it after determining there was no damage. Any financial impact this time would be minimal, it said in a statement.

Of wider concern was an impending electricity crunch.

Tokyo-based TEPCO warned Wednesday that the closure of its seven-reactor Kashiwazaka-Karima plant, which provides up to 13 percent of the utility’s total electricity output, could trigger a power shortage for the busy capital in the summer months.

TEPCO was considering bringing six retired thermal power generators into operation to prepare for a surge in demand as people turn up their air conditioners.

The utility has also asked six other Japanese power companies to sell it emergency electricity from late July through the end of September.

“We are working hard to prevent the worst case scenario, an energy shortage,” company spokesman Shogo Fukuda said Thursday. “We would also call on our customers to redouble their energy-saving efforts.”

In 2003, TEPCO was forced to temporarily halt all of its 17 nuclear reactors for several months after admitting it manipulated safety data in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The company managed to scrape through that summer by firing up seven retired thermal plants and getting emergency power from other companies.

TEPCO’s shareholders have been anything but forgiving this time, driving the company’s share price down 10.3 percent since its last close before the quake.

Associated Press Writers Hiroko Tabuchi in Tokyo and Eric Talmadge in Kashiwazaki contributed to this report.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)