Prosecutors need to take a recent decision by a judicial panel of citizens seriously and look hard again at whether Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s former top executives should be held criminally responsible for the March 2011 disaster at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The government and power companies, meanwhile, need to see the decision by the Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution as a stern warning from citizens against their moves to restart the nation’s idled nuclear power plants before demonstrating they’ve fully grasped the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.
The prosecution inquest panel on July 31 voted that three former Tepco executives, including ex-chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, should be indicted on a charge of professional negligence for failing to take appropriate steps to prevent the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima plant.
The panel, comprising 11 randomly selected ordinary citizens, had been reviewing the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office’s September 2013 decision not to take action against the Tepco management on the grounds that it was difficult for them to foresee the scale of the massive tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, which crippled emergency generators that supply power to cool nuclear cores during power outages and led to the meltdowns at three of the plant’s nuclear reactors.
If the Tokyo prosecutors decide again not to indict the executives or to take no action within three months, the inquest panel will once again review the case. Katsumata, who was Tepco chairman at the time of the Fukushima disaster, and the other executives will face mandatory indictments if the panel decides for the second time that they should be indicted.
Last year’s decision by the prosecutors not to take action against the former Tepco executives is said to have reflected the difficulty in establishing a criminal case against top leaders of a large company like Tepco over what happened at its plant. Court rulings have found individuals guilty of professional negligence only when it is proven that they could have foreseen an accident in question in concrete terms and that the event could have been averted.
Prosecutors tend to follow such court precedents when they decide whether to file charges against company executives. Unlike plant managers or the like, it is rare for top executives of a major firm to be convicted of such a crime.
The prosecutors’ decision must have sounded unacceptable to Fukushima residents displaced from their homes due to radiation fallout from the meltdowns, because it meant that nobody would be held criminally responsible for the disaster that had shattered the lives of so many people.
In addition to such public sentiments, it is important to identify who was responsible for what technically went wrong at the Tepco plant — a process that will be crucial for ensuring that the same mistakes are never repeated.
In its decision last week, the inquest panel said executives of utility companies that deal with nuclear power are duty-bound to pay an “extremely high level” of attention to ensure plant safety, and that they need to take safety steps to guard against events that could go beyond their assumption.
In 2008, Tepco estimated that the biggest tsunami that could hit the Fukushima plant would reach as high as 15.7 meters, based on the government’s seismic data, but failed to take action to cope with such a risk because it was thought that such an effort could force the company to halt the operation of the plant, the panel charged.
It is said that on March 11, 2011, a 14-to-15-meter-high tsunami hit the plant, while a government computer simulation puts the tsunami’s height at 13.1 meters.
The panel also determined that Tepco was also aware by 2006 of the risk of the Fukushima plant losing its power supply — which could result in damage to its reactor cores — in the event of a massive tsunami.
As Tepco’s president and then chairman from 2002 to 2012, Katsumata had apparently been informed of the tsunami risk and was in a position to order relevant sections of the company to take preventive actions, the panel said, noting that Katsumata’s explanation that he had not known about key details pertaining to such risks is “not credible.”
The prosecutors need to clarify each of these points in the inquest’s charges. The reinvestigation should include additional interviews of Katsumata and the other executives as well as the examination of Tepco documents if necessary.
The inquest panel’s decision also serves as a reminder on how — more than three years after the Fukushima plant meltdowns — efforts to pin down the causes of the disaster are not making much progress.
Both the government’s and Diet-commissioned investigation panels on the Tepco plant disaster reported in 2012 that many aspects of what happened at the disaster remain a mystery, but there have not been many followup probes.
The Diet panel said the Fukushima plant crisis was a “clear man-made disaster” caused by the failure of both Tepco management and the government’s regulatory authorities to take preventive measures due to negligence on their part, which led to the shelving of problems and to decision making that conveniently fit their own interests. It also did not rule out the possibility that the No. 1 plant suffered critical damage from the quake itself. Tepco, meanwhile, insisted in its report that the plant disaster was caused by the tsunami, which was bigger than its assumptions.
At present, the government and the power companies are pushing to reactivate nuclear power plants that were put offline after the Fukushima disaster, citing the cost burden on the economy of increased fuel imports, which push up electricity rates and cut the profits of utility companies.
The Abe administration says the plants will be safe once they’ve cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s screening under plant design standards updated to “the world’s most stringent levels” in the wake of the Tepco plant crisis. However, the inquest panel’s decision shows that from citizens’ viewpoint, efforts to identify the factors that caused the Fukushima disaster, including what people at Tepco did or did not do, and to learn its lessons — which should be the prerequisite for restarting nuclear power generation — are far from over.