A recent decision by a judicial panel of citizens to override repeated decisions by public prosecutors and take former top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to court over the 2011 disaster at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will end the situation in which no one has been criminally tried for what was characterized as a man-made disaster more than four years after it took place.
The legal hurdles to laying the blame on individual executives aside, the upcoming court proceedings should serve to shed more light on what went on at Tepco that allowed the loss of the emergency power supply and the critical cooling functions at the Fukushima plant in the giant tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, causing core meltdowns at three of its reactors. As both the government’s and Diet-commissioned investigations pointed out, much of the causes of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl remains shrouded in mystery, and it should be worthwhile for the court to reexamine the case.
The Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, comprising 11 randomly selected citizens, voted last month that Tsunehisa Katsumata, Tepco chairman at the time of the 2011 disaster, and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, should be charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury. The three will now be indicted by lawyers appointed by the Tokyo District Court to play the role of prosecutors.
Public prosecutors have twice decided not to file criminal charges over the March 2011 disaster. In 2013, the Tokyo Public Prosecutor’s Office chose not to take action against 42 people, including the Tepco management and former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had been blamed by Fukushima residents and others for the nuclear catastrophe. After the criminal accusation was narrowed down to six people, the inquest panel reviewing the prosecutors’ decision voted last year that the three executives should be indicted. The prosecutors determined in January that their additional probe could not establish a case against the three, prompting the inquest panel with new members to reexamine the decision.
What’s characteristic of the inquest panel’s decision is the high degree of responsibility that it required of a nuclear power plant operator in taking steps to avert a severe accident. Given the massive damage from such an accident, the panel said the Tepco executives had the duty to guard against a disaster by taking into account even the rarest risks.
Noting that all the executives had been informed by 2009 of an in-house estimate that a tsunami that may hit the No. 1 plant in the event of a major quake can reach as high as 15.7 meters — roughly as big as the maximum 15.5-meter tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011 — the panel accused them of putting the utility’s economic rationale before the plant’s safety and failing to take effective steps to avert the disaster. The committee cited as victims the 13 workers at the plant and Self-Defense Force rescuers injured in the explosions at the reactors as well as 44 patients at a local hospital who died as their conditions deteriorated during evacuation.
According to court precedents, people can be convicted of professional negligence resulting in death and injury from an accident if they were able to foresee the risk of the accident taking place in concrete terms but failed to take steps to avert it. Prosecutors twice determined that they had insufficient evidence to prove that the Tepco top executives were able to foresee the risk of an immense tsunami striking the power plant. The difficulty of establishing the legal case against the three is not likely to change when their case is taken to the court.
The difficulty of overriding prosecutors’ decision and building a criminal case is evident from the track record of charges filed through inquest panel votes. Only two of the eight cases that were forcibly taken to court since the system was introduced in 2009 have so far resulted in the guilty rulings of the accused being finalized. That did not discourage the inquest panel from taking the Tepco case to court. The court must do its best to clarify the circumstances leading to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that remain unexposed.
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