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Flawed acquittal of TEPCO execs demands high court review

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Lawyer Shozaburo Ishida, right, who served as a prosecutor in the TEPCO trial, expresses outrage over the not-guilty verdicts at a news conference in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 19.
October 7, 2019
Lawyers appealed a court ruling that acquitted three former top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) of criminal responsibility for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The lawyers were appointed to serve as prosecutors in the case after the Tokyo prosecutors’ decision against indicting the former executives was reviewed by a prosecution inquest panel, which concluded that they must stand trial.
There has been criticism about appealing court rulings that have found the defendants not guilty, which forces people acquitted of criminal charges to stand trial again.
But many flaws in the Tokyo District Court’s ruling justifies the move made by the lawyers to seek a high court judgment.
For example, the district court asserted that the only way the nuclear accident that crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011 could have been prevented was if plant operations had been halted before the quake.
But the lawyers referred to measures that could have prevented the disaster if they had been taken, including the construction of a seawall, work to protect key structures from flooding and relocating the plant’s emergency power source to high ground.
Witnesses were questioned to determine the feasibility of these measures.
But the ruling dismissed the argument that these measures, if they had been taken, could have prevented the disaster without examining them meticulously.
As a result, the focus of the ruling on the case against the three former TEPCO executives was on whether they had the obligation to take the drastic step of shutting down the reactors before the Great East Japan Earthquake.
It is obviously an extremely tough decision to make given that such a step will inevitably seriously affect people’s lives.
It is no wonder that many victims of the Fukushima meltdowns and multiple academic experts have raised doubts about the district court decision. Critics say the court changed the focus of the case without good reason.
The court’s judgment on some core nuclear safety issues is also questionable.
The court rejected the credibility of the central government’s long-term earthquake forecast published in 2002.
The forecast said a gigantic earthquake could occur anywhere in wide sea areas stretching from off the Sanriku part of the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, to off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture within 30 years at a probability of around 20 percent.
In dismissing the importance of this prognostication, the ruling pointed to dissenting opinions as well as the fact that neither electric utilities nor the nuclear safety regulators used this projection in assessing nuclear safety measures.
By doing so, the ruling effectively defended the government and the electric power industry against the accusations of omission and negligence, and on those grounds rejected the quake projection made by experts through discussions.
The government and the industry have been accused of failing to make sufficient efforts to secure the safety of nuclear power plants as they have worked in close cooperation to promote atomic energy.
Moreover, the ruling said the law at the time of the accident did not require utilities to “ensure absolute safety” of nuclear plants.
But it was widely assumed that all possible measures were taken to ensure that no severe nuclear accident would take place.
This is not about dealing with such farfetched risks as a huge asteroid hitting the Earth.
In fact, the long-term earthquake projection prompted TEPCO employees in charge of nuclear plant operations to consider possible measures to protect facilities against large tsunami and report them to the company’s management team.
It also led Japan Atomic Power Co., which, like TEPCO, operates a nuclear plant on the Pacific coast, to improve facilities at the plant.
It is highly doubtful whether the district court properly assessed the implications of these facts.
To be fair, it is by no means easy to hold individuals criminally liable for an accident caused by a complicated web of factors related to both organizations and people.
Few doubted the difficulty of proving the guilt of the accused. But the problem is the deeply flawed process and argument leading to the court’s ruling.
Still, the trial has offered valuable insights into the accident as many important facts that were not mentioned in the probes by the government or the Diet have come to light.
The district court was expected to assess the implications of all these facts carefully and explain how they were relevant to the accident and to what extent in language ordinary citizens can clearly understand. But the ruling failed to meet this expectation.
This is why the ruling needs to be reviewed by the high court.

October 8, 2019 - Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , ,

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