Tepco bosses indicted on Fukushima negligence charges

Japanese nuclear plant operator argues that tsunami of 2011 was ‘beyond expectations’

Then Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and  vice president Sakae Muto at a press conference at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo in March 2011. Both have been charged with mishandling the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Then Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and vice president Sakae Muto at a press conference at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo in March 2011. Both have been charged with mishandling the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

 

Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), operator of the ruined Daiichi Fukushima Nuclear Plant, have been charged with mishandling the 2011 nuclear crisis.

Monday’s indictment means a court will for the first time probe the company’s failure to prevent the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Tsunehisa Katsumata, the utility’s former chairman, and two ex-vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, will face charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

The aftermath of the 2011 triple meltdown showered much of eastern Japan with radioactive fallout and forced the evacuation of about 160,000 people.

Much of the area around the power plant remains uninhabitable and tens of thousands of the evacuees have yet to return home. Hundreds of mainly elderly people have died in temporary housing.

The indictment cites 44 frail elderly patients who died after being forced to evacuate from a hospital near the plant and says the utility was responsible for their deaths.

Tepco has continued to argue since the crisis began that the 13-metre tsunami that overwhelmed the plant’s cooling system following a huge earthquake on March 11th, 2011 was “beyond all normal expectations.”

Critics have pointed out that the area had a history of powerful quakes and tsunami. An internal Tepco report in 2008 predicted a maximum tsunami of 15.7 metres.

Greenpeace Japan called the charges, which were approved by lawyers appointed by the Tokyo District Court, a “major step forward for the people of Japan.”

“The court proceedings…should reveal the true extent of Tepco’s and the Japanese regulatory system’s enormous failure to protect the people of Japan,” said Hisayo Takada, Greenpeace’s Deputy Program Director in Japan.

The three executives are expected to plead not guilty. A spokeswoman for the utility said it would make no comment on the case. “Revitalisation of Fukushima is our starting point,” she said.

The indictment by a group of citizen activists is the first successful attempt to drag Tepco to court; at least two previous bids have been rejected by public prosecutors.

“I want Tepco executives to tell the truth” said Ruiko Muto, one of the lead plaintiffs. Ms Muto said the utility’s official reports on the disaster are “full of excuses and buck-passing.”

“Experts had warned against earthquakes and tsunamis on this scale, and Tepco employees had discussed their possibility and consequences among themselves,” she said after launching the first suit in 2012.

Japan is struggling to overcome the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, which battered public faith in nuclear safety and triggered a pitched battle over the future of the country’s 50-odd commercial reactors.

The government of prime minister Shinzo Abe has green-lighted several reactor restarts and pledged in its latest national energy plan to meet about 20-23 per cent of the nation’s energy needs with nuclear power.

Mr Abe has repeatedly insisted that the nuclear crisis is over and that the Daiichi plant is under control. A recent media tour of the plant, however, showed contaminated water from the site continues to flow into the ocean. Decommissioning the plant is expected to take at least two decades.