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Pleading not guilty...

Ex-Tepco execs plead not guilty as trial starts over Fukushima crisis


June 30, 2017 (Mainichi Japan)




TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Former top company officials responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi power plant pleaded not guilty Friday as they stood trial for their alleged failure to prevent the nuclear meltdown disaster triggered by the 2011 tsunami.

Appearing before the Tokyo District Court for the first criminal trial over the disaster, Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, then chairman of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., started with an apology but added, "It was impossible to predict the accident."

Two former vice presidents also pleaded not guilty in line with the expected argument of the former officials' defense counsel -- that there was no way to foresee the massive tsunami waves, triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, which engulfed the coastal power plant and crippled key reactor cooling functions.

With major investigations into the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl already completed by the government, Tepco and other entities, the trial is seen as the last chance to shed light on whether the accident was preventable and why the operator had not acted on 2008 data that warned of the risks of massive tsunami.

It took Fukushima residents and their supporters more than five years to bring the three former key officials before a criminal court, as prosecutors twice decided not to charge them.

After the prosecutors' decision was overturned by an inquest of prosecution made up of ordinary citizens for a second time, Katsumata and the two other defendants -- Ichiro Takekuro, 71, and Sakae Muto, 67 -- were finally indicted last year.

The three former executives are facing charges of professional negligence resulting in injury to people at the site as well as the death of dozens of patients who were forced to evacuate from a hospital near the plant.

On March 11, 2011, huge tsunami waves swamped the six-reactor plant, located on ground 10 meters above sea level, and flooded power supply facilities. Reactor cooling systems were crippled and the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors suffered fuel meltdowns, while hydrogen explosions damaged the buildings housing the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 units.

The case, overseen by a panel of three judges with a group of specially appointed lawyers acting as prosecutors, is not expected to see a ruling before next year.

At the hearing, the specially appointed lawyers argued that the three former officials could have foreseen the possibility of the plant being inundated by huge tsunami waves, based on a tsunami estimate produced by a Tepco subsidiary in March 2008.

The data showed the plant could be hit by up to 15.7-meter-high tsunami. The lawyers said the subsidiary proposed to Tepco the following month a specific measure to enhance the plant's preparedness, which was to "build a 10-meter-high seawall" on the same site where the reactor buildings stand.

"We will argue that the three clearly failed to perform their duty of care by showing they downplayed (the significance) of the estimate, neglected information-gathering and sharing, and were not aware of the need to take measures," they said.

They also said that at a meeting in 2009, the three had been informed of the risk of 14-meter-high tsunami by Masao Yoshida, then in charge of nuclear equipment issues. Later as head of the Fukushima power station, Yoshida led the heroic efforts to stabilize the tsunami-ravaged plant with co-workers called the "Fukushima 50."

"The three should have been able to predict that the plant would be hit by tsunami on a scale that would overwhelm the site," the lawyers said.

Past investigations have shown that the 2008 data was relayed to Takekuro and Muto, who were in charge of Tepco's nuclear business at the time. Katsumata, however, told prosecutors that he had "no memory of being briefed" about the information.

The major reason prosecutors decided not to pursue a criminal case was their belief that the nuclear accident was unavoidable, even if the three executives had decided to introduce tsunami countermeasures based on the 2008 data.

The estimate suggested the need to build a seawall on the south side of the plant, covering about 300 meters of coastline. But in March 2011, tsunami around 14 and 15 meters high flowed from the east side of the plant, facing the Pacific Ocean, affecting a far longer stretch of coastline.

Following the disaster, at least 150,000 people in Fukushima were forced from their homes amid radiation fears. While some have returned to their homes, Tepco and the government face enormous challenges in scrapping the crippled reactors.

Saddled with massive compensation payments and radiation cleanup costs, the plant operator received a government bailout and was restructured as Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

Moves to take Tepco executives and government officials to court began in 2012, with a group led by Fukushima citizens filing a criminal complaint against over 50 of them. But only Katsumata, Takekuro and Muto were indicted, without being taken into custody.

The first hearing of the trial drew attention from the public and media, with about 720 people vying for 54 gallery seats. Some people who are suing Tepco for compensation and their supporters were seen holding banners near the court saying "We don't need nuclear power plants."

Ruiko Muto, a native of Fukushima who leads the plaintiffs' group, has expressed hope that the trial will deliver justice.

"The accident has affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. No matter how many years it may take, we expect the trial to be a meaningful one that makes clear who was responsible."


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