The trial of three former Tokyo Electric Power Co Holdings Inc. (TEPCO) executives, who face criminal charges in connection with the multiple nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011, is due to commence at Tokyo District Court today.
Charges of professional negligence leading to injury or death have been brought against former TEPCO chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto, and Ichiro Takekuro*, who all pleaded not guilty to the charges ahead of the trial.
Three reactors at the plant went into meltdowns after a massive magnitude 9 earthquake triggered tsunamis in northern Japan that inundated the plant and caused emergency generators that were needed to cool the reactors to malfunction.
The subsequent meltdowns and explosions resulted in high levels of radiation being emitted from the plant causing the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents and the deaths of 50 hospitalized patients who also had been evacuated.
The tsunami waves that triggered the nuclear accident
reached heights of 14 meters, almost three times the height of the seawalls that were in place to protect the plant. The accused are expected to use the same argument initially used by TEPCO to defend itself against compensation claims -- that it was an unprecedented natural disaster that could not have been anticipated. Operators of Japan's nuclear facilities are considered to be not at fault in the event of a natural disaster. However, scientists and other experts have shown that the facility was negligent in failing to upgrade defences sufficiently in light of historical data showing that 15 m tsunamis were a real possibility.
Indeed, the trial would seem to be less about how the disaster could or should have been managed and more about how it could have been prevented, given the fact that the utility was aware of the shortcomings of its defence system,.
Katsumata told the court he apologised for the "tremendous trouble" caused by the release of radioactive materials, but that he did not "have a criminal responsibility" for the accident. At the time of the accident none of the three men standing trial were in Fukushima. In fact, Katsumata was in China as a part of a business delegation in Beijing, accompanied by other TEPCO executives and a group of “old boys” from various national newspapers – part of whose travel costs were being covered by the utility.
Meanwhile, TEPCO's president at the time, Masataka Shimizu, was some 5 hours away in Nara, westernJapan, where – unknown to many of his staff – he was vacationing at the plush Nara Hotel with his wife after participating in informal financial meetings with officials from major business organisations. Shimizu has not been charged in the current suit.
At the time of the disasters, Takekuro, who is president and CEO of International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Co. — a TEPCO subsidiary — was serving as a TEPCO “fellow” who acted as a conduit between the utility and the offices of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Despite this position, I was told by Kan while researching Yoshida's Dilemma that Takekuro was not especially forthcoming with information from TEPCO HQ and that the first time Kan had been aware that the utility had live video contact with the Fukushima plant -- something presumably Takekuro, a former TEPCO vice-president would be aware of -- was when the prime minister invited himself to the TEPCO HQs to convene a joint emergency response centre.
Ruiko Muto, one of the plaintiffs and a leader of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Plaintiffs Association, said the claimants "hope the trial will shed light on the responsibility for this accident," adding “There is nuclear waste from the cleanup efforts everywhere in Fukushima, and there are still many unresolved problems.”
In "Yoshida’s Dilemma," Mutoh explained about the damage and effects of the nuclear accident. “Some 160,000 people have been forced to leave their homes, lost their jobs and communities and families have been separated. At the power plant itself there have been deaths and at the Futaba hospital near the plant 50 elderly people died while being evacuated,” she said.
In addition to suicides and thyroid cancers in children, people are living in “daily fear” of damage to their health, she added. “The fields are contaminated, radioactive materials have been detected in food, children can’t play outside.. … The effects of this disaster are continuing to grow and … despite these grave dangers nobody is being held accountable. That’s unconscionable, and why so many thousands are taking action.”
Meanwhile in a separate case the Fukushima District Court has sentenced a former Environment Ministry official to one year in prison for taking bribes to help a company win a contract to undertake decontamination operations in Fukushima.
The official, Yuji Suzuki, who formerly worked at a branch of the ministry’s environment regeneration office in Fukushima, was handed the one year sentence, suspended fro three years, and told to to pay a fine of ¥230,000 (US$2,000).
Suzuki assisted in securing a subcontracting project for a Toyama-based civil engineering and construction company to take part in the decontamination efforts in Namie, one of the worst-hit municipalities near the Fukushima plant and had received cash and other kickbacks in return, according to the ruling.
Presiding Judge Shoji Miyata said that the the social impact of Suzuki’s actions was “not insignificant” especially in light of the speediness with which residents were hoping for the decontamination efforts to be completed.
In other news, at general meetings of utilities companies on Wednesday, shareholders have called for an end to nuclear power in light of concerns about safety and dwindling support for nuclear power in local communities.
At the meeting of Kansai Electric Power Co., which was attended by around 680 shareholders from eight power producers, proposals included withdrawal from the nuclear power business and the decommissioning of plants. However, utilities rejected them, citing nuclear power's contribution as a stable "base load" source of electricity and -- yes, that old chestnut --lower energy prices.
Among those present was Daisaku Kadokawa, the mayor of Kyoto, who said the Kansai Electric should move away from nuclear dependency amid continuing repercussions from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Kansai Electric President Shigeki Iwane responded that the utility in western Japan will cut electricity rates from August along with the restart of reactors 3 and 4 at its Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture.
One shareholder pointed out the potential for "massive damage” should a ballistic missile launched by North Korea fall onto the Takahama nuclear plant, which is located on the Sea of Japan coast, within easy range of North Korea’s missiles.