Former top officials responsible for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant pleaded not guilty Friday over the 2011 disaster that caused multiple meltdowns and forced at least 150,000 residents from their homes amid radiation fears.
Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, who was the chairman of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., as well as two former vice presidents, entered the plea at the Tokyo District Court in the first criminal trial over the disaster.
“I apologize for causing the serious accident,” Katsumata said, but added, “It was impossible to predict.”
His remarks were in line with the expected argument from the former officials’ defense — that there was no way to foresee the massive tsunami waves, triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake, which engulfed the seaside plant and crippled key reactor cooling functions.
The three went on trial after an inquest of prosecution made up of ordinary citizens overturned prosecutors’ decisions not to charge them. Criminal complaints against over 50 Tepco and government officials have been filed by Fukushima residents and others since 2012.
Katsumata and the two other defendants — Ichiro Takekuro, 71, and Sakae Muto, 67 — were indicted on charges of professional negligence resulting in the injury of people at the site as well as in the deaths of dozens of patients forced to evacuate from a hospital near the plant.
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 at least until next year.
The high-profile trial may shed light on issues that remain unsolved — who should be to blame for the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and whether it was possible to prevent the accident that led to so many Fukushima residents fleeing their homes.
One contentious point is whether the three former executives had been aware of the possibility that the plant, located on ground 10 meters above sea level, could be swamped by tsunami as high as those that hit the site on March 11, 2011, following the earthquake.
Investigations have already shown that a Tepco subsidiary estimated in 2008 that the plant could be hit by up to 15.7-meter-high tsunami after a government panel warned of risks of a magnitude-8-class quake occurring in the ocean off the Fukushima plant.
The data was relayed to Takekuro and Muto, who were in charge of Tepco’s nuclear business at that time, and was also “very much likely” reported to Katsumata by June 2009 at the latest, according to an independent committee of ordinary citizens that reviewed the prosecutors’ decision against laying charges.
Katsumata, however, explained to prosecutors that he has “no memory of having been briefed” on the information.
A major reason prosecutors decided not to pursue a criminal case was their belief that the nuclear accident was unavoidable, even if the three 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 a length of coastline extending about 300 meters. 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.
In the trial, a group of lawyers, who have taken over the prosecutors’ job given the decision taken by the inquest of prosecution, are expected to seek an explanation of the discussions about the estimate that took place inside the company.
The lawyers are also likely to make the case that the former executives were able to foresee the tsunami risks and take measures to prevent the accident.
Several dozen people, including Tepco officials, as well as earthquake and tsunami experts, are expected to appear in court as witnesses.
On March 11, 2011, tsunami flooded power supply facilities at the six-reactor plant and crippled reactor cooling systems. The Nos. 1 to 3 reactors suffered fuel meltdowns, while hydrogen explosions damaged the buildings housing the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 units.
Faced with massive liabilities in the wake of the disaster, the plant operator received a government bailout and was restructured as Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.
More than 20,000 people currently remain subject to evacuation orders and Japan faces huge challenges in scrapping the crippled reactors.
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.”