Former Tepco Officials Enter Not-Guilty Pleas -- WSJ

By Mayumi Negishi Features Dow Jones Newswires

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 3, 2017).

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TOKYO -- Three former executives from Tokyo Electric Power Co. pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence at the beginning of the only criminal trial related to Japan's nuclear-plant meltdown six years ago.

Former Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and the ex-heads of the utility's nuclear division, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, offered apologies at the Tokyo District Court but said it wasn't possible to have foreseen the estimated 13.1-meter (43-foot) tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, 2011, triggering meltdowns in three of the plant's six reactors.

"I apologize for the tremendous trouble to the residents in the area and around the country because of the serious accident," Mr. Katsumata said quietly as he bowed.

"I believe I don't have a criminal responsibility in the case," he said.

Public anger remains high over the handling of the biggest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster by the government and Tepco. Some former residents of the area who were evacuated following the disaster rode a 4 a.m. bus to attend Friday's hearing.

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"Tens of thousands of people were affected -- we had to abandon our homes, our jobs, our communities," said Ruiko Muto, one of 1,324 Fukushima residents who filed the original criminal complaint against 42 Tepco executives and government officials in 2012.

"I hope this case will help us learn what decisions were made when, and who is accountable," she said.

The trial comes after prosecutors twice decided not to indict the executives, saying the failure to protect the power plant from the unlikely event of a massive tsunami didn't constitute criminal oversight. Citizen panels twice challenged that decision, triggering the trial.

As of May, almost 60,000 Fukushima residents were registered as evacuees, meaning they can't return home and haven't settled permanently elsewhere.

The prosecution is expected to focus on risk assessments made by Tepco, including a 2008 study that found a 15.7-meter tsunami could hit the plant. Tepco's lawyers say that study and others were simulations with various probabilities and it was unrealistic to expect the executives to have acted swiftly on them.

"If Tepco had paid attention to its duty to ensure the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, shouldn't the accident have been prevented?" Hiroshi Kamiyama, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said in his opening argument.

He argued that Tepco should have shut the plant down until safeguards were made, even if the odds of such a tsunami were 1-in-100,000.

Legal experts expect an acquittal, but say that could be years away. Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the head of the nuclear power station and two aides were sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.

According to the indictments, the victims of Tepco's failure to safeguard against a large tsunami include employees and members of Japan's Self Defense Forces exposed to rubble from two hydrogen explosions, and 44 patients of a hospital who died while being evacuated to avoid the nuclear fallout.

While some residents have returned to towns around the plant, many are still temporary dumping grounds for radiation-contaminated soil. The scale of the disaster has also hindered a rapid restart of resource-starved Japan's nuclear industry.

"Life is so hard now," said Masaki Yoshida, who abandoned her home and family's bamboo-charcoal business in Miyako, Fukushima, with her three children and husband. She said she is struggling to make ends meet farming in another part of the country.

"I want to know why this happened, why we lost everything."

Write to Mayumi Negishi at mayumi.negishi@wsj.com

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (July 3, 2017).

TOKYO -- Three former executives from Tokyo Electric Power Co. pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence at the beginning of the only criminal trial related to Japan's nuclear-plant meltdown six years ago.

Former Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and the ex-heads of the utility's nuclear division, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, offered apologies at the Tokyo District Court but said it wasn't possible to have foreseen the estimated 13.1-meter (43-foot) tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, 2011, triggering meltdowns in three of the plant's six reactors.

"I apologize for the tremendous trouble to the residents in the area and around the country because of the serious accident," Mr. Katsumata said quietly as he bowed.

"I believe I don't have a criminal responsibility in the case," he said.

Public anger remains high over the handling of the biggest nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster by the government and Tepco. Some former residents of the area who were evacuated following the disaster rode a 4 a.m. bus to attend Friday's hearing.

"Tens of thousands of people were affected -- we had to abandon our homes, our jobs, our communities," said Ruiko Muto, one of 1,324 Fukushima residents who filed the original criminal complaint against 42 Tepco executives and government officials in 2012.

"I hope this case will help us learn what decisions were made when, and who is accountable," she said.

The trial comes after prosecutors twice decided not to indict the executives, saying the failure to protect the power plant from the unlikely event of a massive tsunami didn't constitute criminal oversight. Citizen panels twice challenged that decision, triggering the trial.

As of May, almost 60,000 Fukushima residents were registered as evacuees, meaning they can't return home and haven't settled permanently elsewhere.

The prosecution is expected to focus on risk assessments made by Tepco, including a 2008 study that found a 15.7-meter tsunami could hit the plant. Tepco's lawyers say that study and others were simulations with various probabilities and it was unrealistic to expect the executives to have acted swiftly on them.

"If Tepco had paid attention to its duty to ensure the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, shouldn't the accident have been prevented?" Hiroshi Kamiyama, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said in his opening argument.

He argued that Tepco should have shut the plant down until safeguards were made, even if the odds of such a tsunami were 1-in-100,000.

Legal experts expect an acquittal, but say that could be years away. Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the head of the nuclear power station and two aides were sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.

According to the indictments, the victims of Tepco's failure to safeguard against a large tsunami include employees and members of Japan's Self Defense Forces exposed to rubble from two hydrogen explosions, and 44 patients of a hospital who died while being evacuated to avoid the nuclear fallout.

While some residents have returned to towns around the plant, many are still temporary dumping grounds for radiation-contaminated soil. The scale of the disaster has also hindered a rapid restart of resource-starved Japan's nuclear industry.

"Life is so hard now," said Masaki Yoshida, who abandoned her home and family's bamboo-charcoal business in Miyako, Fukushima, with her three children and husband. She said she is struggling to make ends meet farming in another part of the country.

"I want to know why this happened, why we lost everything."

Write to Mayumi Negishi at mayumi.negishi@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 04, 2017 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)