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Ex-TEPCO executives set to plead not guilty over Fukushima nuclear accident

Tsunehisa Katsumata, Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto (from left to right) (Mainichi)

Three former top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) are to be pursued in court for criminal responsibility for the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and are expected to plead not guilty.

Court-appointed lawyers, who will take the role of prosecutors, have revealed details of the charges they plan to file against the former top TEPCO executives. The three former top TEPCO officials are likely to plead not guilty, which will set the stage for an all-out confrontation with the court-appointed lawyers. In past cases where mandatory indictments were handed down by lay person reviewers, as happened in this case, many have ended with not-guilty verdicts. While there are, therefore, views that the hurdles are high for finding the former top TEPCO executives guilty, there are also expectations that new facts about the nuclear disaster could be uncovered.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer for a group of plaintiffs in lawsuits over the Fukushima nuclear disaster who were pursuing the former TEPCO executives' criminal responsibility, said at a news conference in Tokyo on Feb. 29, "If there wasn't a mandatory indictment, the problems of the accident would have remained shrouded in darkness. The facts should be thoroughly investigated in court in order to ensure that such an accident will never occur again."

In March 2008, TEPCO came up with an estimate calculation that tsunami of up to 15.7 meters could hit the Fukushima nuclear power complex someday in the future. In a decision made in July 2015 by the 11-member Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution to indict the three former TEPCO executives, committee members determined that the three former executives were aware of this tsunami estimate and argued, "They did not take countermeasures because they placed priority on economic factors." In a shareholder derivative lawsuit demanding 27 successive TEPCO board members pay a total of more than 5 trillion yen in damages caused by the Fukushima nuclear accident, however, all of the three former TEPCO executives argued that the anti-tsunami measures called for by the estimate were unnecessary. There are many such differences between what the executives said and the arguments contained in the court-appointed lawyers' decision to indict the three former TEPCO executives, and the three former TEPCO executives are set to talk about such conflicting points directly in the upcoming court case.

According to documents for the shareholder derivative lawsuit, TEPCO's tsunami estimate was based on a long-term assessment made by the government's earthquake research body, which said that a major earthquake with a magnitude of about 8 could occur in the Japan Trench, including a stretch off Fukushima Prefecture. TEPCO, however, did not swiftly implement countermeasures to prepare against the estimated tsunami, instead commissioning outside experts to examine the credibility of the assessment.

When the tsunami estimate was made, former TEPCO Vice President Ichiro Takekuro was serving as manager of the utility's Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department, and former TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto was his deputy manager, meaning both were in positions for handling everything related to the company's nuclear facilities. While the two former vice presidents acknowledged that they had received a report on the tsunami estimate, they questioned the credibility of the long-term assessment on which it was based. Muto and his lawyers argued that measures taken prior to the nuclear accident were sufficient in view of safety assessments that had been made by then. He denied that he postponed taking necessary tsunami countermeasures, saying that he was going to take steps promptly, should they be necessary, after getting expert research results. Takekuro has made similar arguments.

Meanwhile, Tsunehisa Katsumata, who was serving as TEPCO president at the time the tsunami estimate was made, argued that he had understood that he would receive a report on the estimate when it became necessary, as the utility's Nuclear Quality and Safety Management Department was first giving it a professional look. He has denied his responsibility for the outcome of the disaster, stating, "There was no report (given to me) and I did not think that we would urgently need countermeasures against tsunami."

The three former TEPCO executives will likely make similar arguments in the criminal trial at the Tokyo District Court, and the court-appointed lawyers will need to shoot down the defendants' arguments. Major points of dispute in the trial are likely to include questions about the credibility of the long-term assessment that served as the basis for the tsunami estimate, whether and when the three former executives received the report on the estimate, and the need for anti-tsunami countermeasures.

In the wake of the nuclear disaster, the government's Investigation and Verification Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company questioned 772 people, including officials of TEPCO and the central government. And, after receiving criminal complaints about the nuclear accident, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office launched an investigation and questioned the three former TEPCO executives as well as experts on earthquakes and tsunami. The details of the explanations provided by many of these people, though, including the three former executives, have not been revealed. In the upcoming trial, people related to the nuclear accident are expected to appear in court as witnesses, so the trial could uncover issues that have not been brought to light so far.

Lawyer Yasuyuki Takai, a former prosecutor, said, "It is difficult to hold individuals responsible for an accident that occurred due to a kind of earthquake that is said to occur only once in 1,000 years. They should not press charges of criminal responsibility against (the three former TEPCO executives) unless it can be said, from a common sense viewpoint, that they were able to predict (the tsunami)."

Meanwhile, Motoharu Furukawa, a lawyer who has served as counsellor at the Cabinet Legislative Bureau in the past, said, "In order to find them guilty, it is necessary to prove that the operators of nuclear plants are obliged to take high levels of care. TEPCO's estimate had a basis, and it can be said that the three executives were capable of predicting the accident. It would be desirable for the causes of the accident to be uncovered through the trial."

The court-appointed lawyers are known for their rich experience in defending plaintiffs in criminal court battles. Lawyer Shozaburo Ishida handled a court battle over the Lockheed and Recruit bribery scandals, while lawyer Hiroshi Kamiyama, together with Ishida, served as a defense lawyer for a Nepali man accused of killing a TEPCO female employee, helping him to be acquitted on retrial. Attention will now focus on whether they will be able to establish a criminal case against the former TEPCO executives as they are to take a role opposite to their usual one as defense lawyers.

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