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Japan Indicts 3 Former Executives Over Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Japanese prosecutors indicted three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the ruined Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, on Monday, charging them with criminal negligence for their role in reactor meltdowns after an earthquake and tsunami five years ago.

The indictments were the first stemming from the 2011 nuclear disaster, which spread radiation across a wide area in northeastern Japan and led to evacuations that left more than 100,000 homeless.

The sudden and often chaotic evacuations caused the deaths of 44 people, prosecutors said in a statement. They did not identify the victims, but most, if not all, are believed to have been older Fukushima residents who were in hospitals and nursing homes, or bedridden at home, when the disaster occurred.

One died in a hospital because doctors and nurses were forced to flee, leaving the person "without treatment or care," the prosecutors said. Others died in transit or in makeshift temporary shelters. (No one was killed by radiation, because levels outside the plant itself were too low.)

"This is a relief for the tens of thousands of victims who are still dealing with hardships and anguish," said Ruiko Muto, an opponent of nuclear power who leads a citizens' group that has been pursuing charges against Tokyo Electric and against government officials. "It's wrong that no one has taken responsibility."

The three executives — Tsunehisa Katsumata, 75; Sakae Muto, 65 (no relation to Ruiko Muto); and Ichiro Takekuro, 69 — are accused of failing to take measures that would have protected the nuclear plant from the damage the tsunami wrought.

The enormous wave, caused by a magnitude 9 offshore earthquake, overwhelmed the plant's protective sea wall and swamped the facility, knocking out cooling systems needed to keep its six reactors from overheating. Three of the units ultimately melted down.

Mr. Katsumata was chairman of Tokyo Electric, known as Tepco, at the time of the accident. Mr. Muto and Mr. Takekuro are former heads of the utility's nuclear division. They did not comment on the indictments, but previously testified during a parliamentary inquiry that they had no way of foreseeing that such a powerful tsunami could strike the plant. The quake that caused it was the largest ever recorded in Japan.

Prosecutors initially declined to bring charges in the case. They said there was not enough evidence that failings by Tepco or its leaders had amounted to criminal wrongdoing. But their decision angered Fukushima residents and antinuclear campaigners, who formed the organization led by Ms. Muto, the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Plaintiffs Group, to demand a review.

A rarely used feature of Japanese law allows committees of private citizens to examine prosecutors' decisions on whether to indict suspects. In certain circumstances, they can order those decisions reversed. Two such committees revived the Fukushima case, and both determined that the Tepco executives should be criminally charged.

In response, prosecutors said last year that they would move forward with the case.

A date for the trial has not been set, but lawyers involved in the case said it would probably not begin for at least six months.

Studies by seismologists before the tsunami had suggested that waves higher than the Fukushima plant's roughly 30-foot sea wall could strike the Pacific Coast, the site of the plant.

Some engineers and critics of nuclear power had wanted the wall to be built higher, and critical backup electrical generators to be moved to safer locations. The generators ended up swamped by seawater in the tsunami, which destroyed them and set off the cooling system failure.

"They know that measures were necessary, but for economic reasons they did nothing," said Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer and politician who supports the Fukushima plaintiffs' group.

Tepco declined to comment, saying it could not discuss a pending trial.

Prosecutors in Japan rarely lose; about 99 percent of indictments end in guilty verdicts. But their record in cases forced on them by citizens' review panels is much weaker. Almost by definition, such cases involve charges that prosecutors saw little hope of proving, and legal experts say most end in acquittals.

Mr. Kaido said that he believed that the executives would be found guilty, but that whatever the outcome, the trial would bring welcome scrutiny to Tepco, which he accused of not having addressed failings that led to the disaster.

He cited a recent controversy over the amount of time it had taken Tepco to openly acknowledge that the three Fukushima Daiichi reactors had melted down. The tsunami struck in March 2011, but the utility did not declare the meltdowns until May, saying until then that it could not be sure what had happened inside the damaged reactors.

Then, just a week ago, Tepco said it had belatedly "discovered" an internal company manual containing standards and procedures for measuring radiological accidents. Had it followed the procedures, it said, it would have had to classify the accident immediately as a meltdown event. Critics accused the company of a deliberate cover-up.

"I think it will become clear in the trial just what kind of facts the government, the parliamentary inquiry and prosecutors have been hiding," Mr. Kaido said.

[Source: By Jonathan Soble, The New York Times, Tokyo, 29Feb16]

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