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In Tokyo court hearing, ex-Tepco VP denies delaying measures against tsunami before Fukushima nuclear crisis

Kyodo

A former vice president of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. on Tuesday denied any responsibility in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, saying he did not procrastinate on taking measures against tsunami, which flooded the nuclear power plant during the crisis and caused fuel meltdowns in three of its reactor units.

In a hearing at the Tokyo District Court, Sakae Muto, 68, said he still believes re-examining a 2008 estimate made by Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, on the risk of high waves was “an appropriate procedure,” citing what he believed was the low credibility of the original data used for the projection.

“I had no intention to buy time and I’m offended by the claim that I put off taking measures,” said Muto, who is charged with professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries in connection with one of the world’s worst nuclear crises.

Former Vice President Ichiro Takekuro, 72, and former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 78, were also indicted along with Muto in 2016 for allegedly failing to take measures to prevent the disaster.

The indictment of the three was mandated in 2015 by an independent panel of citizens after prosecutors decided against laying charges.

Earlier testimonies revealed that Muto was informed in 2008 of an estimate that a tsunami as high as 15.7 meters could hit the plant, but that he asked an engineering association to check how credible the projection was rather than taking preventive steps immediately.

Muto told the court that he thought the projection for the tsunami was too high, and that it came “out of the blue.” The estimate, based on the national long-term quake risk evaluation in 2002, was first presented to Tepco in March 2008 by a subsidiary firm. Muto said he was briefed on the data in June that year.

He defended his response, saying, “I had no decision-making power. We were discussing how to collect information necessary for the company to formulate a policy.”

“I thought the long-term evaluation was unreliable,” he said. “I was not in a situation where I could decide on measures based on it.”

Muto also said he told Takekuro about the tsunami projection in August 2008, although a lawyer for Takekuro said at the first hearing for the trial, in June last year, that the former executive has no recollection of being briefed on it.

At the outset of the court hearing Muto offered his apology to those affected by the crisis, saying, “As a person involved, I deeply apologize to those who died and their families as well as those who had to evacuate.”

The prosecution alleged Muto continued to operate the Fukushima plant without taking proper safety measures, while the defense argued the tsunami was unforeseeable as the state evaluation was not credible and the crisis could not have been avoided even if measures had been taken.

Public attention has been on whether the utility was able to anticipate a massive tsunami and prevent the nuclear crisis. More than 300 people lined up for the 58 gallery seats at Tokyo District Court’s largest courtroom to listen to Muto’s testimonies.

The three former executives face charges related to injuries sustained by 13 people — including Self-Defense Forces members — resulting from hydrogen explosions at the plant, as well as the deaths of 44 people, including patients forced to evacuate from a hospital.

Takekuro and Katsunuma are due to be questioned in court later in the month.

On March 11, 2011, the six-reactor plant located on the Pacific coast was flooded by tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, causing the reactor cooling systems to lose their power supply. The Nos. 1 to 3 reactors subsequently suffered fuel meltdowns, while hydrogen explosions damaged the buildings housing the No. 1, 3 and 4 units.

Following the crisis, said to equal the severity of the 1986 Chernobyl accident, some 160,000 people were at one stage evacuated. More than 40,000 of them remained displaced as of late September.

Experts and Tepco officials are divided over the credibility of the evaluation, which assessed the possibility of a massive tsunami that could hit the Pacific shore including that of Fukushima Prefecture.

Makoto Takao, a Tepco employee who was in charge of compiling the estimate, has said that many seismologists supported the evaluation given by state authorities.

But Tohoku University professor Fumihiko Imamura, who was consulted by Tepco over the long-term evaluation, said it was something that could not be ignored but did not necessarily warrant immediate action.

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