Three former executives to be prosecuted in Fukushima nuclear disaster — The New York Times; The Japan Times

The New York Times:

” TOKYO — In the first criminal prosecutions of officials connected to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster of 2011, the Japanese authorities said on Friday that they would move forward with cases against three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the plant where reactors melted down after a devastating tsunami.

The move was a victory for citizens’ groups that have been pursuing charges against dozens of officials at Tokyo Electric Power, known as Tepco, and the government, with no success until now. Prosecutors had twice rejected requests to indict the three former Tepco executives, but a review board overruled their decision on Friday and ordered that charges be brought.

“We had given up hope that there would be a criminal trial,” said Ruiko Muto, an opponent of nuclear power who leads the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Plaintiffs Group, an umbrella organization representing about 15,000 people, including residents displaced by the accident and their supporters. “We’ve finally gotten this far.”

Tens of thousands of people who lived near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant have been separated from their homes since the meltdowns at three of the facility’s reactors, which spread radiation across a wide area. Evacuation orders have been lifted in some parts of the affected zone, but many former residents are still reluctant to return, because they fear for their health or because they no longer have jobs to support them there.

It is rare for prosecutors’ discretion over indictments to be challenged in Japan. The reversal was ordered by a panel of 11 private citizens, convened through a rarely used feature of the Japanese legal system that allows outsiders to review prosecutors’ decisions under certain circumstances.

It was the second time that such a panel, known as a committee for the inquest of prosecution, had determined that the former executives should be prosecuted. The first panel delivered its conclusion last year, after the Tokyo district prosecutors’ office rejected a criminal complaint against the executives filed by the plaintiffs group.

The prosecutors declined to act on the first panel’s recommendation, but the plaintiffs group appealed, and a second and final panel was convened. Under the rules governing the review panels, the second panel’s decision is binding on prosecutors.

The three executives who face indictment are Tsunehisa Katsumata, 75, the chairman of Tepco at the time of the accident, and two former heads of the utility’s nuclear division, Sakae Muto, 65, and Ichiro Takekuro, 69. The review panel ordered that they be charged with professional negligence resulting in death.

Tokyo Electric Power declined to comment on the panel’s decision.

Though the indictments represent a long-sought symbolic achievement for the antinuclear movement, the likelihood that the men will be found guilty at trial may be low. When Japanese prosecutors bring charges on their own initiative, they win convictions more than 99 percent of the time, but cases forced on them by citizens’ review panels are different. Almost by definition, they involve charges that prosecutors saw little hope of proving.

Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor who is now an attorney in private practice, said a large majority of such cases result in not guilty verdicts. To convict the Tokyo Electric Power executives, prosecutors would have to prove that their failure to predict the massive tsunami that struck Fukushima’s coast in March 2011, and to equip the power plant with sufficient protections against it, constituted an act of criminal oversight.

Even proving that the meltdowns killed people could be difficult, he said. A number of deaths have been linked to the evacuation, mostly of elderly nursing home and hospital patients whose weakened conditions made them vulnerable to being moved under chaotic circumstances, but the accident did not result in deaths from radiation poisoning.

“This is a very unusual case,” Mr. Gohara said. “The hurdles to conviction are high.” ”

source

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The Japan Times:

” Three former top executives at Tokyo Electric Power Co. are set to be hauled into court over their alleged responsibility for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution voted Friday that Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of Tepco at the time of the disaster, and two former vice presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, should be indicted for professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

The announcement by the panel of citizens came more than four years after the massive tsunami of March 11, 2011, knocked out the critical cooling functions at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 plant, leading to three of the six reactors there melting down.

Prosecutors have twice previously decided not to seek such indictments, saying Tepco could not have expected such a massive tsunami to hit the nuclear plant and cripple its critical safety systems.

But on Friday the committee overrode the prosecutors’ decisions for a second time, which will lead to a compulsory indictment of the three Tepco executives. They were all responsible for major disaster prevention planning.

Holding a news conference at the Tokyo District Court, representatives of a group of Fukushima residents and others who have filed criminal complaints against the executives said they were elated.

“I want (the Tepco executives) to tell the truth” during the upcoming trials, said Ruiko Muto.

Muto said many elderly people who evacuated from the radiation-contaminated areas have since died in shelters away from their hometowns, while numerous people still living in Fukushima are being exposed to radiation via contaminated materials from the heavily damaged plant.

Muto said many people outside the prefecture have the impression that the nuclear crisis is over.

“If who should be held responsible is not made clear, (the dead) victims won’t rest in peace,” she added.

Before the catastrophe, Tepco had conducted simulations and concluded that critical facilities at Fukushima No. 1 would be flooded and critically damaged if a major earthquake struck off the Tohoku coast and tsunami of more than 10 meters in height hit the plant.

But prosecutors concluded that it was impossible for Tepco to predict such gigantic tsunami would actually hit the plant, as opinions from quake experts were not established regarding the possibility of such a powerful quake.

The judicial review committee said the Tepco executives were obliged to prepare for a worst-case scenario even if the possibility of such a disaster was considered very small.

The simulations provided a good indication that a major crisis was possible, but the three neglected their obligation to prepare for such an eventuality, the committee concluded in a 30-page document explaining its decision.

The panel pointed out that 44 patients who were forced to evacuate from a hospital located 4.5 km from Fukushima No. 1 died after their health conditions deteriorated because of the move. The committee alleged that their deaths were caused by the meltdown crisis.

Meanwhile, no health damage has so far been confirmed to have been caused by radiation from contaminated materials released from the plant.

The committee said one person who was exposed to radiation from contaminated materials has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, but a causal link with the meltdown disaster has not been established.

The central government is preparing to allow the reactivation of some commercial reactors suspended in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

Muto said she hopes the findings in the upcoming trials will prompt a change in the national nuclear policy and lead to the abolition of all nuclear power plants. ”

source

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