An artist’s concept of seawalls to protect the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant from tsunami
The first criminal trial over the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster is now under way, drawing fresh attention to key questions concerning the devastating accident and its lasting reverberations.
The focus of public attention will be on whether the reams of evidence collected by public prosecutors, along with statements by those in charge, will provide a clearer picture of how the disaster unfolded.
Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operated the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, pleaded innocent June 30 in the first hearing held at the Tokyo District Court.
They are charged with professional negligence resulting in the deaths of 44 people who had to be evacuated from a hospital near the plant, and injuries of others.
While the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office twice decided not to press charges against the three, citing a lack of evidence, independent judicial panels of citizens voted for mandatory indictments against them.
The core question for the trial judge is whether it was possible for them to predict the towering tsunami that inundated the plant, triggering a triple meltdown, and take effective safety measures to prevent the catastrophe.
In his opening statement, the lawyer acting as a prosecutor asserted that the three former TEPCO executives had the “ultimate obligation and responsibility” to ensure the safety of the nuclear facility.
He cited a 2008 estimate by a TEPCO subsidiary involved in the operation of the Fukushima plant that pointed to the “shocking” possibility of the plant being struck by tsunami of up to 15.7 meters. The TEPCO officials proposed that measures be taken to protect the plant from such a tsunami, including the construction of a seawall, but the three executives decided to postpone taking such steps.
The defense team countered by reiterating its argument that it was merely one of many estimates and constitutes no reason to claim that the defendants were able to predict and avoid the accident.
In 2002, a government agency warned that a massive earthquake capable of generating huge tsunami could occur anywhere off the Pacific coast from the northern Sanriku region in Tohoku down to the Boso region in Chiba Prefecture.
The huge 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused damage to nuclear power facilities in India.
Japanese nuclear regulators at that time called for steps to enhance the safety of nuclear power plants.
Six years since the harrowing accident, there are still many questions that remain unanswered with regard to TEPCO’s responses to these warnings and developments. How seriously did the utility consider additional safety measures? What steps did the company actually take and fail to take? What are the reasons for its decisions?
There is no denying that most of the TEPCO people involved have done little to help clear up the facts. Their behavior has been marked by insincerity.
The three defendants were summoned by the Diet’s committee that looked into the accident as unsworn witnesses and answered various questions in public.
After that, however, they showed no willingness to offer their own accounts of what happened.
Like many other TEPCO executives, the three defendants have, to this day, refused to agree to their statements made in interviews by the government’s investigative committee to be made public.
Criminal trials are held to determine whether the defendants should be held criminally liable.
The rights of the defendants provided by the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Law should, naturally, be respected. That means there is a limit to what a criminal court can do to clear up the truth.
While recognizing the limitations of what a criminal trial can achieve, we sincerely hope it will shed new light on the accident.
This hope is obviously shared by not just the survivors who have lost their families and hometowns in the accident but also countless others who were affected by the disaster.
The defendants have a duty to help disclose the truth.
In addition to determining whether or not the defendants are guilty of professional negligence, the trial offers an opportunity to reflect deeply on some key questions concerning nuclear power and the related roles of electric utilities and the government; for example, can the safety of nuclear plants be ensured and is there really a viable future for nuclear power generation in this earthquake-prone nation.