In this March 11, 2011 file photo, waves are seen washing over a 10-meter-high breakwater and approaching the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant
The key point of contention in the criminal trial of former top Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) executives over the 2011 nuclear crisis will likely be their decisions on tsunami prevention measures after the utility itself estimated in 2008 that tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could hit its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former vice presidents Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto were slapped with mandatory indictments by lay reviewers after public prosecutors twice decided not to press charges. Their trial began on June 30, when all three pleaded not guilty and emphasized that it was impossible for management to predict the nuclear accident.
In his opening statement, lawyer Hiroshi Kamiyama, who has been appointed prosecutor by the court, slammed the TEPCO ex-managers, saying, “After TEPCO learned that over 10-meter-tall tsunami could hit the plant, the company put off countermeasures and irresponsibly continued to operate the facility as-was.”
The key question in the nuclear crisis investigation had been whether the 2002 long-term assessment report by the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion stating that massive tsunami could occur off the Pacific Coast from the Sanriku to the Boso areas, was sufficiently credible to require TEPCO to implement countermeasures. The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office in September 2013 dropped a criminal case against the former TEPCO management, arguing that the assessment was “not academically developed enough.”
In response, Kamiya and other court-appointed attorneys argued during the June 30 hearing that those in charge of nuclear power facility management in fact tried to map out tsunami countermeasures based on the 2002 assessment, but TEPCO as a company put off implementing them.
Based on the government’s 2002 assessment, a TEPCO-affiliated company in March 2008 reported to the utility headquarters that tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could strike the Fukushima No. 1 plant. TEPCO officials at the nuclear power facility management department immediately ordered the affiliated firm to determine how tall a levee was required to prevent flooding of the plant, which stands 10 meters above sea level. The firm reported that a 10-meter-tall seawall would be necessary.
These figures were then reported to then Fukushima plant chief Masao Yoshida and then vice president Muto, who was in charge of the matter at the time. Muto, however, asked the Japan Society of Civil Engineers to re-evaluate the tsunami height estimates, and shelved countermeasures at TEPCO facilities as a whole.
The prosecution also pointed out that this “policy shift” continued to be debated within the utility. A note saying “tsunami prevention measures cannot be avoided” was circulated at a September 2008 meeting, and Yoshida told a February 2009 executive meeting — attended by the three defendants — that “some say tsunami of about 14 meters tall could hit the plant.”
However, lawyers for the former executives argued that contrary to the prosecution’s assertion of “a policy shift” in tsunami countermeasures, TEPCO had not set a particular policy to begin with. They insisted that the 15.7-meter tsunami estimate was a “trial calculation,” squarely denying the prosecution’s argument. Amid this clash, witness testimony on how the matter was understood within the utility’s ranks will be key.
Parties related to civil lawsuits over the nuclear crisis are paying close attention to the criminal trial, as many major points of dispute overlap.
The Maebashi District Court in March handed down the first ruling of the roughly 30 class action law suits filed by nuclear evacuees and other parties, in which the court acknowledged the liability of both TEPCO and the Japanese government. The Chiba and Fukushima district courts are expected to hand down rulings in other civil cases by the end of the year.
Lawyer Hideaki Omori, co-head of the legal team representing those affected by the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, says that many details have yet to be uncovered, such as what discussions were held within TEPCO over tsunami countermeasures. He adds, “While criminal trials look into individual responsibility, the responsibility of the three defendants, who were at the center of the organization, is equivalent to that of TEPCO.”
TEPCO declined to comment on the criminal trial.