Trial Of Three Former Tepco Execs Begins In Tokyo

A trial of three former Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) executives began in Tokyo on Friday with opening statements that went right to the core issue at stake: Did the defendants ignore warnings that a huge tsunami event could devastate the plant – an even that occurred in March 2011 causing the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

Fukushima evacuation zonesTepco itself is not on trial, but the three executives are charged with neglect that lead to the deaths of 40 elderly citizens who were evacuated from a hospital as the disaster unfolded.

The executives, former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takeuro all pleaded not guilty. They are on trial despite public prosecutors twice looking into allegations, then deciding to drop the case. In Japan, cases can be forced to go to trial by a citizens' petition. In this case, more than 5,700 citizens petitioned to have the executives go on trial. They face prosecution from court-appointed attorneys.

Katsumata apologized for the accident, while pleading not guilty. Muto also expressed remorse, but said, “I still think it was impossible to anticipate an accident like that. I believe I have no criminal responsibility over the accident.”

At issue is whether or not the executives should have been more pro-active when shown data in 2008 that predicted disastrous results from an 8.3-magnitude offshore earthquake that would create a tsunami wave 50 feet tall.

Lawyers for the defendants said the issue is moot, given that the Great East Japan Earthquake was even larger than than the hypothetical scenario that was predicted. The Great East Japan Earthquake was recorded as a 9.0-magnitude tremor, meaning protection against an 8.3-magnitude event would have been efforts and money wasted, anyway.

The earthquake and tsunami killed about 19,000 and forced the evacuation of about 150.000 residents.

The trial is expected to take a year or more as the court hears from scores of expert witnesses. In the end, the executives could be assigned five years in prison and fines of under $9,000.

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