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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ex-TEPCO leaders plead not guilty in Fukushima nuclear trial

TOKYO (AP) — Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of negligence in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro apologized for the disaster and the trouble it caused, but said they don't think they bear criminal responsibility, because they couldn't foresee it.

That issue is expected to be the crux of their trial, the first to consider whether officials of the utility can be held criminally responsible. TEPCO itself has not been charged. The trial got underway at Tokyo District Court and is likely to take more than a year.

Three reactors had meltdowns, and radiation spread into surrounding communities after the nuclear plant north of Tokyo was hit by a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Tens of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate, and some areas remain uninhabitable more than six years later.

The former officials are accused of not taking sufficient preventive measures despite being aware of the risk of a major tsunami at the Fukushima plant at least two years before it happened.

The three men are charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury, including the deaths of more than 40 senior citizens during and after lengthy evacuations from a hospital, and injuries to 13 people including TEPCO employees during emergency work.

Prosecutors considered the case twice, and dropped it both times, but a citizens' judicial panel overrode their decision and indicted the former executives. They are being tried by a team of lawyers appointed by the court.

Government and parliamentary investigative reports have said TEPCO's lack of safety culture and weak risk management, including an underestimate of tsunami risks, led to the disaster. They also said TEPCO ignored tsunami measures amid collusion with then-regulators and lax oversight.

TEPCO has said it could have taken safety measures more proactively, but that a tsunami of the magnitude that crippled the plant could not be anticipated.

The criminal trial for the TEPCO executives was prompted by an appeal by more than 5,700 people from Fukushima and other parts of Japan, urging prosecutors to investigate and send the utility executives to court to determine who is responsible for the disaster.

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© 2018 The Associated Press.

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