Trial of former Tepco executives over 2011 disaster

The criminal trial of three former top executives at Tokyo Electric Power Co. over the triple meltdown at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011 has begun at the Tokyo District Court. The point at issue is whether it was possible for the accused to have foreseen the giant tsunami that led to the nuclear disaster and whether they could have taken steps to prevent the catastrophe. Proving the case against them will not be easy. Still, the court and the lawyers acting as prosecutors should leave no stone unturned in their effort to unravel Tepco’s decision-making process regarding the nuclear power plant’s safety measures. This is critical as a great deal remains shrouded in mystery as to what the power company and its executives did or failed to do to prepare the plant for the kind of disaster that struck it six years ago.

The trial was set after an Inquest of Prosecutions, composed of ordinary citizens, twice overturned the prosecution’s decisions not to pursue charges against the former Tepco executives — former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, and two ex-vice presidents, Sakae Muto, 67, and Ichiro Takekuro, 71.

Three lawyers, who acted as prosecutors to indict the men in February, charge that the former executives were well aware of the possibility that a tsunami higher than the Tepco plant site, which is 10 meters above sea level, could hit the facility and flood the reactor turbine buildings, resulting in a loss of power that would cause the plant’s cooling system to fail. Yet they neglected to take any precautionary measures to prevent such an outcome. Such negligence on the part of the Tepco executives, the lawyers charge, led to the hydrogen explosions at the plant’s Nos. 1 and 3 reactors on March 12 and 14, 2011, injuring 13 people at the scene and forcing patients at a nearby hospital to endure long hours of evacuation, which resulted in 44 deaths.

In the opening session of the trial on Friday, the former top executives all pleaded not guilty, saying it was impossible for them to foresee the tsunami and the nuclear disaster.

In a civil suit in which some 140 Fukushima residents who evacuated to Gunma Prefecture due to the nuclear disaster demanded ¥1.5 billion in damages, the Maebashi District Court has ordered the government and Tepco to pay ¥39 million in compensation, ruling that they could have foreseen the tsunami hitting the plant. But to establish criminal responsibility on the part of the individual executives, it must be proven that they could have foreseen the occurrence of a calamity in concrete terms — instead of just being vaguely aware of the danger.

One point at issue in the trial is an estimate made by a Tepco subsidiary in 2008 — based on the government’s assessment of long-term quake risks — that if an earthquake of magnitude 8.2 — similar in intensity to the 1896 quake off the Sanriku coast of Tohoku — occurred off Fukushima Prefecture, a tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could strike the plant site. During the civil suit proceedings that in 2008, Muto said that he had been informed of the estimate, along with an explanation from the subsidiary that a seawall 10 meters high needed to be built to protect the plant site, and that he gave an instruction to look into how to get government approval for building such a seawall. When interrogated by prosecutors, Takekuro said he had been informed of the estimate in April or May 2009. However, Katsumata has denied that he had been informed of the estimate — although the Inquest of Prosecution suspects that he must have received the information by June that year.

Although Tepco discussed measures to protect key facilities at the plant against flooding by a tsunami, the company eventually took no concrete action. Not enough has been made known as to what specific information the executives received and what judgments they made after they received the tsunami estimate.

Although the government, the Diet and Tepco each conducted probes into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, they have been unable to clarify why the power company failed to take prompt measures in response to data showing the potential risk of a tsunami occurring that could damage the plant. This trial may be the last chance to scrutinize Tepco’s decision-making process over the safety of the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The court and the prosecution should do their utmost to clarify not only the responsibility of the Tepco executives for the Fukushima plant disaster but also that of the government as the supervisory authority.