Three go on trial over 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster

Former Tokyo Electric Power executives deny negligence after tsunami swamped facility

Three former executives with Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) have gone on trial for failing to prevent the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, insists it could not have predicted the size of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake or tsunami waves that swamped the facility on March 11th, 2011.

The tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling system and triggered the meltdown of three of its six reactors. More than 150,000 people fled Fukushima prefecture.

Tsunehisa Katsumata (77), then-chairman of the company, denies charges of professional negligence resulting in injury or death, along with Ichiro Takekuro (71) and Sakae Muto (67).

The charges relate to injuries of workers onsite and to the deaths of more than 40 elderly or ill patients evacuated from a nearby hospital in the aftermath of the disaster.

Prosecutors say the company ignored reports and warnings by experts who had predicted a natural disaster could overwhelm the plant’s defences.

A week before the meltdowns, Tepco executives allegedly softened the wording of a report warning a massive tsunami would swamp the area where the plant is located.

Investigations say the executives were shown documents in 2008 that warned a 15.7-metre-high tsunami could strike after an earthquake.

Mr Katsumata told the Tokyo District Court on Friday he had "no memory of having been briefed" on the documents.

He said the disaster had been “impossible to predict.”

A 2012 parliamentary inquest into the Fukushima disaster concluded it was “man-made” and blamed collusion between Tepco, the government and regulators.

Fukushima residents have campaigned for five years to put Tepco executives in the dock, but prosecutors repeatedly dismissed attempts to charge them.

However, a judicial review panel of citizens ruled last year the executives could be indicted.

It is the first time anyone has faced criminal charges related to the Fukushima disaster and the trial, which is likely to last most of the year, will be closely watched. If found guilty, the three men face up to five years in prison.

Over 100,000 nuclear evacuees are still scattered throughout Japan. Many have built new lives and are reluctant to return to communities that have fallen into ruin.

The government has spent an estimated $50 billion (€44 billion) on a vast cleanup programme to bring radiation in the prefecture back to normal levels.

Worries over radiation complicate an already difficult decision. Although scientists have repeatedly said the decontaminated areas are safe, many distrust such reassurances.

Last December, the government estimated costs from the Fukushima disaster at 21.5 trillion yen, doubling earlier forecasts.

The trial has been criticised by some as a waste of money but it is being welcomed by the victims of the world’s nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

"It think it is natural that Tepco should be on trial," said Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minamisoma, the nearest city to the Daiichi plant.

“The company has yet to take full response for what occurred, and they must.”

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo