Editorial: Indictments recommended for former officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, company behind the Fukushima nuclear accident

Criminal responsibility for Japan’s unprecedented nuclear accident may now be considered in court.

In connection with the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution has recommended that three former TEPCO executives, including the former chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, be indicted for professional negligence resulting in death and injury and other charges.

But cases involving professional negligence in the past suggest that, even if the former TEPCO executives are indicted, there will remain high hurdles for prosecuting criminal responsibility.

The victims of the accident have been forced to endure difficult lives as evacuees over a long period of time. It is probably hard for them to understand why the former executives of the company, which is behind such a disastrous accident, have not been held legally accountable.

Prosecutors have been cautious in their handling of this case, but they must not adhere to past practices. They must now reinvestigate the case without delay.

Last September, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office decided not to indict Mr. Katsumata and others because the prosecutors could not say that the huge tsunami was clearly predictable.

Since the direct cause of the accident was the natural disaster of the earthquake, followed by the tsunami, the public prosecutors decided that they could not question the responsibility of individuals. This was essentially in line with TEPCO’s claim that the accident could not have been predicted.

However, the recommendation by the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution states that such an accident could indeed have been predicted. It says that the risk of a 15-meter tsunami was already foreseen in 2008, before the 2011 accident, and that TEPCO should have pursued countermeasures against possible accidents, based on the maximum calculated risk. If TEPCO had moved the power supply vehicles and other necessary devices to higher locations and developed guidelines for emergencies, the recommendation says, the damage may have been averted or reduced. This position is different from the earlier decision by prosecutors.

With regard to the risk of tsunamis and earthquakes, the committee also questions TEPCO’s safety awareness, stating, “It seems the company saw these dangers only as an abstraction, viewing the risk as simply numerical calculations and assuming that such disasters would never occur.”

TEPCO has always offered self-justifying explanations for not having put in place countermeasures for a tsunami. One example is the excuse that the Japanese government did not give them direction in this area. As a result, TEPCO’s attitude has faced withering criticism from the public.

TEPCO says that the risk could not have been foreseen, but wasn’t the lack of consideration given to this risk due to economic motives and inefficiency? Such suspicions harbored by the general public are undoubtedly behind the committee’s recommendation.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office will once again interview the people concerned. The charges may be dismissed again, or if no decision is made within three months, the committee will examine the case once more. If it again recommends indictment, the indictment will become mandatory.

The Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution is a citizens’ panel established to reflect the people’s viewpoint in court. The prosecutors must reinvestigate the case thoroughly, from the start, and come to a just decision.

With the ramifications of the accident still ongoing, TEPCO’s attitude should also be questioned. The problem of waste water has not been adequately resolved, and yet TEPCO is requesting permission to restart the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant.

The public is strongly opposed to this move because they cannot trust TEPCO, which seeks to restart the power station without identifying why the accident in Fukushima Prefecture occurred and who is responsible. We must make TEPCO fully aware of our disapproval.

(Originally published on August 1, 2014)