EDITORIAL: Fukushima disaster trial offers chance to reveal TEPCO's organizational woes
A case concerning responsibility for the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will be brought to court.
Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, face a trial over the nuclear crisis triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors filed indictments with the Tokyo District Court on Feb. 29 against the three former executives on charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.
Former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 75, and two former vice presidents are accused of failing to implement sufficient safety measures against tsunami. A number of patients at hospitals in the vicinity of the plant died in the subsequent evacuation and workers were injured at the plant.
The mandatory indictments reflect public criticisms and suspicions concerning the nuclear accident.
Many citizens have taken a dim view of the fact that nobody has been held accountable for the nuclear accident, which the company claims was “beyond expectation.” TEPCO’s profit-oriented policy is also believed to be behind the failure to take sufficient safety measures at the plant.
Such huge accidents are caused by a complicated confluence of factors. There is inevitably a limit to what the trial of the former TEPCO executives can do in terms of clarifying the whole picture of the disaster. The trial will be focused on the three individuals’ criminal liability for negligence from the viewpoint of the law and evidence.
Still, the trial can reveal important facts about the information the former executives had before the accident and the decisions they made in responding to the information.
We also hope the trial will shed light on problems with the organization and corporate culture of a large utility operating many nuclear reactors so that important lessons can be gleaned.
After residents and citizens groups filed a criminal complaint, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office decided not to indict the former executives, citing the difficulty in predicting such an accident.
But a committee for the inquest of prosecution comprising 11 citizens has twice decided that the former TEPCO executives should be prosecuted, triggering the process for forced indictment.
A report on the accident published by TEPCO in 2012 did not make clear who should be held responsible and what kind of lessons should be learned. The document’s descriptions were vague about many key subjects, especially issues regarding TEPCO’s entire organization, such as the company’s advance assumptions about possible tsunami, steps it had taken against the risk, and how the company handled related information during the crisis.
The Diet-appointed commission tasked with investigating the nuclear accident said the root cause dated back before the disaster.
But many questions remain unanswered about how the utility dealt with the risks before the accident.
Why didn’t TEPCO take stronger measures against the risk of tsunami even though it had estimated a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters could hit the plant? What was the thinking behind this failure to take such measures?
The government’s investigative committee has interviewed around 770 people and disclosed the testimonies of about 200, who have given their consent. But only about 20 of them are former TEPCO executives and other people linked to the utility.
We do hope the trial will fill in as many information gaps as possible.
The trial should also provide an opportunity to take a closer look at the roles played by the investigative panels.
All panels established to look into the accident finished their work in about one year, leaving many stones unturned.
These panels should scrutinize all relevant factors, including flaws with related organizations, to prevent a recurrence of the disaster. The systems and functions of investigations into nuclear accidents should be expanded and enhanced.
The damaged nuclear reactors that have spewed large amounts of radioactive materials into the environment must be continuously cooled with water. Water contaminated with radioactive substances keeps accumulating at the plant.
Around 100,000 people are still living away from their homes as evacuees. The nuclear accident has still not been brought under control.
Obviously, more efforts are needed to draw crucial lessons to ensure nightmarish nuclear accidents will never happen again.