Japan court to rule on TEPCO execs nuclear crisis liability

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese court will decide Thursday whether three former executives for Tokyo Electric Power Co. are liable for the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, the only criminal trial in the nuclear disaster that has kept tens of thousands of residents away from their homes due to lingering radiation contamination.

At stake in the high profile case at the Tokyo District Court is whether ex-TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, and two former executives could have foreseen the tsunami that struck the plant after an earthquake and effectively taken preventive measures that would have saved the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on Japan's northeastern coast.

Katsumata and co-defendants, Sakae Muto, 69, and Ichiro Takekuro, 73, apologized over the disaster but pleaded not guilty during the trial's opening session in June 2017. They said predicting the enormous tsunami was impossible.

Three of the plant's reactors had meltdowns after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, spreading radiation into surrounding communities and into the sea.

Prosecutors in December demanded a five-year prison sentence for each executive, accusing them of professional negligence by not taking sufficient measures to guard against the threat of a tsunami despite knowing the risks. The executives are also accused of causing the death of 44 elderly patients whose health deteriorated during or after forced evacuation from a local hospital.

Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing more than 5,700 Fukushima residents who filed a criminal complaint to prosecutors to investigate, said he is expecting the legal battle to last about a decade because whichever side loses will appeal the ruling.

"This is only the beginning of a major battle," he said at a rally ahead of Thursday's ruling. "Our ultimate goal is to eradicate dangerous nuclear plants that have thrown many residents into despair."

Prosecutors told the court that the three defendants had access to data and scientific studies that anticipated the risk of a tsunami exceeding 10 meters (30 feet) that could trigger a loss of power and severe accidents.

Defense attorneys for the TEPCO executives have said in court that the tsunami projection was not well-established and divided experts. They said the actual damage was larger than projected, and that if TEPCO had taken steps based on the projection, it would not have prevented the disaster.

Prosecutors said TEPCO was already conducting a tsunami safety review following a 2007 earthquake in Niigata, another location in northern Japan, and the three former executives routinely participated in the process. In March 2008, a TEPCO subsidiary projected that a tsunami as high as 15.7 meters (47 feet) could hit Fukushima, prompting the construction of seawalls to be considered.

The executives had access to other similar tsunami projections and that they could have had preventive measures installed before the accident if they acted more proactively and quickly, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Muto ordered further examination by experts, in effect delaying the plan. They said TEPCO opted to avoid additional spending as it was burdened at the time with repairs to another nuclear plant damaged in the 2007 quake.

Prosecutors presented hundreds of pieces of evidence including emails between safety officials and the two vice presidents that suggested increasing concern and a need to take additional tsunami measures at the plant. More than 20 TEPCO officials and scientists testified in court.

Government and parliamentary investigation reports have said TEPCO's lack of a safety culture and weak risk management, including an underestimation of tsunami risks, led to the disaster. They said TEPCO ignored tsunami protection measures amid collusion with regulators.

The company has said it could have been more proactive with safety measures, but that it could not anticipate a tsunami of that magnitude that crippled the plant.

TEPCO has spent 9 trillion yen ($83 billion) in compensation, in addition to the estimated 8 trillion yen ($74 billion) for decommissioning of the plant and 6 trillion yen ($55 billion) for decontamination in the region.


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