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Denials dominate 1st trial questioning of ex-TEPCO VP over tsunami-triggered nuke disaster

Former Tokyo Electric Power Co. Vice President Sakae Muto. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Denials of allegations dominated the questioning on Oct. 16 of former Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) vice president Sakae Muto in the criminal trial he and other ex-TEPCO leaders face over their responsibility to predict and prevent damage caused by the 2011 tsunami that triggered an unprecedented nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan.

"The charge that I delayed (tsunami countermeasures) is outrageous," said Muto, 68, during the questioning at the Tokyo District Court. He repeated emphatic rebuttals against the prosecution's argument that the damage could have been avoided if he had taken appropriate actions earlier.

Muto and two other defendants -- former TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 78, and former vice president Ichiro Takekuro, 72 -- stand accused of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries of evacuees from the nuclear disaster. They were indicted in 2016 by lawyers serving as prosecutors after public prosecutors refused to do so twice and the prosecution inquest committee shot down those refusals.

A massive tsunami caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 hit TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, cutting the facility off the power grid and ruining emergency power generators. The prolonged blackout made it impossible to cool down the nuclear fuel cores at three reactors, triggering their meltdowns and the release of massive amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. As a result, hundreds of thousands of nearby residents, including elderly patients, were forced to flee, with dozens dying and others getting injured in the process.

During the questioning on Oct. 16, Muto replied "Not at all" on many occasions when defense lawyers asked him if he procrastinated on introducing measures to protect the nuclear station from potential high tsunami waves three years before the 2011 incident.

When asked by lawyers serving as prosecutors about the exchange he had with his subordinate at the time tsunami countermeasures were discussed, Muto insisted, "I do not recall." When his answer was cut short by the prosecution, Muto indicated his dissatisfaction, crossing his arms with a big sigh.

According to past testimonies in the trial that began in June last year, Muto and other top TEPCO officials heard reports from subordinates about the need for tsunami countermeasures at the Fukushima plant, and they approved those steps. Muto, however, told the court that the top-level meeting was "for information sharing" and not for decision-making. The defendant also denied that he was briefed on such measures.

The former TEPCO vice president did apologize at the beginning of the questioning, saying, "To the many people who lost their lives, their family members or those who were forced to evacuate their homes, I have caused you great trouble that cannot be expressed in words." Muto, clad in a dark suit, then stood up, bowed deeply and stated, "I extend my deepest apologies. I am very sorry about what happened."

(Japanese original by Mirai Nagira, Science & Environment News Department, and Masanori Makita, City News Department)

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