On March 29, the day that Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York, Bloomberg noted: "Westinghouse Electric Co., once synonymous with America's industrial might, wagered its future on nuclear power ‒ and lost."1
Whether Westinghouse will survive is an open question. Toshiba said on March 29 that Westinghouse has debts totalling US$9.8 billion and the bankruptcy filing is a clear indication that the company's viability is in doubt.2
Toshiba would sell Westinghouse if it could find a buyer, but it can't. Toshiba has tried but failed to sell Westinghouse several times already.3 Incredibly, Toshiba chief executive Satoshi Tsunakawa said in mid-March that Toshiba might have to pay a buyer to take Westinghouse off its hands.4 Presumably a utility or company willing to accept Westinghouse (along with a payment) would also be taking on a debt load as well as future risks associated with Westinghouse's nuclear business.
The Financial Times reported on March 5: "Mitsubishi this month ruled out rescuing the US company, citing its partnership with Areva, the troubled French reactor designer. Hitachi, which makes reactors with GE, also said it would not invest in Westinghouse, highlighting technology differences. GE is also thought to be highly unlikely to have any interest in Westinghouse. GE declined to comment. EDF, the French power company that is planning to buy a controlling stake in Areva's reactor business, is not expected to pursue Westinghouse. An EDF spokesperson said buying Westinghouse was "not in our plan"."3
South Korea's Kepco is seen as a possible buyer of Westinghouse, or parts of Westinghouse, and Kepco is also seen as a possible saviour of Toshiba's NuGen reactor project at Moorside in the UK. George Borovas from law firm Shearman & Sterling said: "It is therefore possible that some kind of 'package deal' could be structured for a strategic Korean investment into Westinghouse and NuGen at the same time."3
But Suh Kyun-ryul, professor of atomic engineering at Seoul National University, asked: "Why should [Kepco] take such big financial risks by taking over a troubled business amid the gloomy industry outlook?"3 And Kepco president Cho Hwan-eik was unequivocal in his comments on March 22: "We have no plan to acquire Toshiba's stake [in Westinghouse] ... there is no role for us there".5
There is speculation that Chinese utilities might be interested in buying Westinghouse ... if only because just about every other possibility has been ruled out.6 None of the speculation about a Chinese buy-out addresses the point that Chinese interests are no more likely to be interested in a bankrupt company than anyone else. Speculation about a Chinese buy-out has been laced with warnings about the 'need' to keep Westinghouse out of Chinese hands for various non-descript 'national interest' and 'national security' reasons.7
Bloomberg reports that Westinghouse has been a repeated target of Chinese espionage.7 Five Chinese military officials were indicted in absentia in 2014 for allegedly stealing trade secrets from Westinghouse through computer hacks, and China General Nuclear Power Corp. was indicted in 2016 for conspiring to steal restricted nuclear technology from Westinghouse.7
US officials are reportedly examining three options to keep Westinghouse out of Chinese hands: blocking a sale to a Chinese buyer (assuming there is a Chinese buyer ... which seems to be the elephant in the room ... at the moment there isn't a buyer); encouraging a bid from US investors or US-allied foreign investors; or direct US government investment in Westinghouse in return for an equity stake.7
A carve-up of Westinghouse is possible with profitable operations sold off to lessen existing debts. Jose Emeterio Gutierrez, interim president and CEO of Westinghouse, said in early April: "It's a reality that we have this problem with the construction of the US AP1000 projects, but it's also true that the rest of the company is in good shape. It's a healthy business. We don't have significant problems."8
But Westinghouse may have to sell profitable operations to stave off bankruptcy and may be left with little or nothing other than the high-risk, heavily-indebted AP1000 reactor projects in the US. George Borovas from law firm Shearman & Sterling said: "Any sale would likely be preceded by a restructuring of Westinghouse so that the 'new Westinghouse' being sold would be free of any liabilities arising from the current new build projects that Westinghouse is constructing."6
Toshiba itself is already in precisely that situation: reluctantly selling profitable parts of its business to stave off bankruptcy and being left holding an unwanted atomic bomb.
Currently, Toshiba is being forced to increase its 87% stake in Westinghouse. Japanese company IHI Corporation is exercizing its put option to sell its 3% stake of Westinghouse to Toshiba for US$157 million.9 KazAtomProm owns the remaining 10% of Westinghouse and may also exercize its right to sell its stake to Toshiba on or after 1 October 2017.10
On a brighter note, Jose Emeterio Gutierrez, interim president and CEO of Westinghouse, recently told staff that the company's decommissioning business currently brings in almost US$100 million a year and could easily double or triple in the next few years.8 He pointed to plants at risk of early closure in the US and fleets in countries like Germany that are phasing out nuclear power altogether after the Fukushima disaster. "The market is huge. Also, it's not a market that is short term," he said.8
Will Toshiba survive?
Toshiba said in February that it expects to book a US$6.3 billion writedown on Westinghouse11, on top of a US$2.3 billion writedown in April 2016.12 The losses exceed the US$5.4 billion Toshiba paid when it bought a majority stake in Westinghouse in 2006.11
Now Toshiba says there is "substantial doubt about the Company's ability to continue as a going concern".13
Toshiba's demise is a crushing blow to Japan's nuclear industry ... which was already crushed by the Fukushima disaster. Nikkei Asian Review commented on April 10:14
"Japan's nuclear power industry is at the most critical juncture in its history. Demand for new reactors has dried up at home following the Fukushima nuclear disaster and dismal prospects for export are dual menaces threatening the fate of the country's nuclear technology. No domestic construction on a new reactor has begun for the past eight years. The catastrophic accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011 blew a hole in the industry's plans. The picture for exports of Japanese nuclear power technology looks just as gloomy. Japanese reactor manufacturers and suppliers of key components are now facing the possible loss of their technological viability."
Toshiba's decision to have its subsidiary Westinghouse file for bankruptcy protection may put some boundaries around future liabilities and losses, particularly those associated with the US AP1000 projects. But Toshiba will still be responsible for guaranteeing roughly ¥650 billion (US$5.9bn) worth of Westinghouse debt if the nuclear projects are delayed due to the bankruptcy filing, and Toshiba also needs to set aside about ¥170 billion (US$1.54bn) in loan-loss provisions in case loans to Westinghouse prove unrecoverable.15
The US government is also on the hook due to its US$8.3 billion loan guarantee for the two AP1000 reactors under construction in Georgia.16 A Department of Energy spokesperson said the agency is "keenly interested" in Westinghouse's bankruptcy proceedings and that the administration expects all companies to "honor their commitments" to finish the project.16 If Westinghouse cannot complete the reactors, repayment of the loans will likely be delayed, in which case the government would take on the debt. Nikkei Asian Review reported on March 11: "It remains unclear how Washington and Toshiba would split the costs in this case. But the possibility that American taxpayers could bear some of the burden has spurred negotiations involving the U.S. and Japanese governments to settle the matter."17
The BBC noted on March 29 that Toshiba's share-price has been in freefall, losing more than 60% since the company first unveiled the massive cost overruns with US reactor projects in December 2016.18
Standard & Poor's cut its credit rating on Toshiba on March 17, down two notches to CCC-, pushing it further into junk status after previous downgrades in December and January.19
Toshiba is selling profitable businesses to stave off bankruptcy, including its highly-profitable memory chip business. Toshiba will need to earn about ¥1 trillion (US$9.1bn) from the sale to bring its net worth out of the red.15
Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were planning an integration of their nuclear fuel operations due to the protracted weakness of Japan's nuclear industry ‒ but that has stalled due to Toshiba's current crisis.20
A broader integration between the three companies would make sense according to Tom O'Sullivan from energy consultancy Mathyos Japan. "It would make sense. There's no point in having three companies chasing a dying market in Japan," he said.21 But Mitsubishi president and chief executive Shunichi Miyanaga ruled out a merger in mid-February22 and a Hitachi spokesperson said there are no discussions on merging the companies' overall nuclear operations.21 Nevertheless, the Japanese government might use whatever leverage it has to force a tie-up between the three companies.
There are conflicting reports as to whether Tokyo might use government funds to rescue Toshiba. Most of the statements from the government suggest that there will not be a government bail-out.23 But Nikkei Asian Review reported on March 18 that the Toshiba/Westinghouse crisis was discussed at a meeting between Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry and the US commerce secretary and energy secretary, and speculated that the two governments "seem to be softening on their previous stance that the company's restructuring is a private-sector matter."24
In February, Toshiba said it plans to exit the reactor construction business and focus its nuclear business on design, equipment supply and engineering services.25 That probably remains the plan, but comments by Toshiba chief executive Satoshi Tsunakawa on March 29 suggest a more complete withdrawal from the nuclear industry outside of Japan. "This is a de facto withdrawal from the overseas nuclear business for us. Therefore, we don't see any more risk," he said.
Whatever Toshiba does, it is still on the hook for multi-billion dollar liabilities associated with the AP1000 projects in the US.
1. Chris Martin and Chris Cooper, 29 March 2017, 'How an American Tech Icon Bet on Nuclear ‒ and Lost its Way', www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-29/how-an-american-tech-icon-bet...
2. Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Soble, 29 March 2017, 'Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power', www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/business/westinghouse-toshiba-nuclear-bankrup...
3. Kana Inagaki and Song Jung-a, 5 March 2017, 'Kepco seen as potential buyer for Toshiba's ailing nuclear unit', www.ft.com/content/32f14d76-f8e6-11e6-9516-2d969e0d3b65
4. Makiko Yamazaki and Taiga Uranaka, 14 March 2017, 'Toshiba pushes sale of nuclear unit Westinghouse as crisis deepens', www.reuters.com/article/us-toshiba-accounting-idUSKBN16L02X
5. Song Jung-a in, 22 March 2017, 'Kepco rules out buying Westinghouse stake', www.ft.com/content/cd70d392-0ec8-11e7-b030-768954394623
6. Stephen Stapczynski, 13 March 2017, 'Troubled Nuclear Builder Seen Best Fit for Asian Ambitions', www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-13/troubled-nuclear-builder-seen...
7. Jennifer Jacobs, Saleha Mohsin, and Jennifer A Dlouhy, 5 April 2017, 'Trump Team Takes Steps to Keep Chinese From Westinghouse', www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-04-04/trump-officials-alarmed-c...
8. Anya Litva, 11 April 2017, 'Westinghouse CEO tries to spread optimism despite bankruptcy', http://powersource.post-gazette.com/powersource/companies/2017/04/11/Wes...
9. Tom Hals and Jessica DiNapoli, 27 March 2017, 'Factbox: Toshiba's options in U.S. nuclear bankruptcy', www.reuters.com/article/us-toshiba-westinghouse-factbox-idUSKBN16Y2QP?il=0
10. World Nuclear News, 29 March 2017, 'Westinghouse files for US bankruptcy protection', www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Westinghouse-files-for-US-bankruptcy-protec...
11. BBC, 14 Feb 2017, 'Toshiba chairman quits over nuclear loss', www.bbc.com/news/business-38965380
12. Reuters, 26 April 2016, 'Toshiba Takes $2.3 Billion Writedown on U.S. Nuclear Unit Westinghouse', http://fortune.com/2016/04/26/toshiba-writedown-westinghouse-nuclear/
13. Toshiba Corporation, 11 April 2017, 'Toshiba Announces Consolidated Results for the First Nine Months and the Third Quarter for Fiscal Year 2016, Ending March 2017', www.toshiba.co.jp/about/ir/en/finance/er/er2016/q3/ter2016q3e.pdf
14. Nikkei Asian Review, 10 April 2017, 'Japan's nuclear technology faces extinction', http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/Japan-s-nuclear-technology-faces-...
15. Nikkei Asian Review, 6 April 2017, 'Cutting Westinghouse loose puts Toshiba in a deeper hole', http://asia.nikkei.com/magazine/20170406/Business/Cutting-Westinghouse-l...
16. Peter Maloney, 3 April 2017, 'Westinghouse bankruptcy puts $8.3B in federal loan guarantees for Vogtle plant at risk', www.utilitydive.com/news/westinghouse-bankruptcy-puts-83b-in-federal-loa...
17. Nikkei Asian Review, 11 March 2017, 'Toshiba scrambles to stem further bleeding from Westinghouse', http://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Toshiba-in-Turmoil/Toshiba-scrambles-to...
18. BBC, 29 March 2017, 'Toshiba's Westinghouse files for US bankruptcy', www.bbc.com/news/business-39424634
19. AFP, 17 March 2017, 'S&P cuts troubled Toshiba's credit rating', www.businesstimes.com.sg/consumer/sp-cuts-troubled-toshibas-credit-rating
20. Japan Times, 23 Feb 2017, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/02/23/business/hitachi-toshiba-mitsubishi...
21. Aaron Sheldrick, 31 March 2017, 'Big in Japan? Hope at home for Toshiba's nuclear arm after U.S. debacle', www.reuters.com/article/us-toshiba-nuclear-idUSKBN17211S
22. Financial Times, 16 Feb 2017, 'Mitsubishi Heavy rules out Toshiba nuclear rescue', www.ft.com/content/0238df8c-f44f-11e6-8758-6876151821a6
23. Samantha Cheh, 3 April 2017, 'Never-ending misfortunes: Toshiba stuck in the news cycle from hell', http://techwireasia.com/2017/04/toshiba-stuck-newscycle-hell/
24. Nikkei Asian Review, 18 March 2017, 'Toshiba's trials entangle Tokyo, Washington', http://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Toshiba-in-Turmoil/Toshiba-s-trials-ent...
25. Makiko Yamazaki, 14 Feb 2017, 'Delays, confusion as Toshiba reports $6 billion nuclear hit and slides to loss', http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-toshiba-accounting-idUKKBN15T033
26. Russell Gold and Mayumi Negishi, 31 March 2017, 'Ire at Toshiba's nuclear backdown', www.wsj.com/articles/toshibas-westinghouse-electric-files-for-bankruptcy...