After ignoring criminal complaints related to the Fukushima disaster for months, prosecutors finally moved on Aug. 1 toward considering criminal charges against senior government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials accused of responsibility for the crisis.
With pressure growing for people to be brought to account for a catastrophe described by a parliamentary inquiry in July as a “profoundly man-made disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” prosecutors took the unusual step of publicly announcing that criminal charges will be investigated.
Sources within the prosecution service said the District Public Prosecutors Offices in Fukushima, Tokyo and Kanazawa are expected to look into charges, including professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.
But prosecutors also warned that establishing cases against the officials will face major hurdles. They will have to establish that those named in the criminal accusation were in a position to foresee the accident and prevent it, that the impact on victims resulted from the nuclear accident, and that specific individuals should be held responsible for that damage.
Past failures to make charges stick against officials involved in the Japan Airlines Corp. Flight 123 accident in 1985 and the West Japan Railway Co. crash of 2005 underline the difficulty of establishing negligence.
The publication of the final report of the government’s Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations on July 23, the last of four major investigations into the Fukushima disaster, has cleared the way for prosecutors to consider charges against officials, and a growing pile of criminal complaints and accusations from members of the public connected to the Fukushima accident.
Ruiko Muto, 58, who leads a group of 1,324 complainants from Fukushima Prefecture, hailed the prosecutors’ decision.
“It is a problem that nobody has taken responsibility for such extensive damage. Little progress has been made in looking into what went wrong under these circumstances,” said Muto, who submitted a criminal complaint with Fukushima prosecutors in June. “We expect a thorough investigation.”
The group filed a criminal complaint against 15 current and former TEPCO executives and 18 bureaucrats and nuclear experts who worked for the government or sat on official panels. They are accused of professional negligence resulting in bodily injury and death, including people who died during the evacuation following the nuclear accident.
TEPCO officials, including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and those in charge of safety at the utility, are accused of not taking proper precautions, despite the fact that the possibility of a massive earthquake and tsunami had been pointed out.
The 18 bureaucrats and experts named in the complaint are accused of failing to put in place appropriate safety measures before the accident and exposing the public to radiation by not releasing information about contamination after the disaster.
Nobuaki Terasaka, former director-general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, and Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, are all included in the complaint.
In one of four cases to be investigated by Tokyo prosecutors, writer Takashi Hirose, freelance journalist Shojiro Akashi and others filed a separate criminal accusation last July against Katsumata, Madarame and 24 others, saying they had exposed Fukushima residents to radiation by neglecting quake and tsunami safety. They are also accused of responsibility for the deaths of patients fleeing from a hospital near the plant in the confused aftermath of the disaster.
“The Japanese population finds it odd that no investigation has been launched so far,” Hirose said. “(Prosecutors) should exhaust every possible avenue.”
Failed negligence cases against senior officials litter Japanese legal history. Prosecutors decided not to indict any Japan Airlines Corp. officials and others after they opened a probe into the nation’s worst aircraft accident in August, 1985, which resulted in 520 deaths.
Prosecutors also decided not to appeal a district court ruling in January, which acquitted Masao Yamazaki, a former president of West Japan Railway Co. who was indicted on suspicion of professional negligence in connection with the deaths of 106 passengers and of a driver in a train crash on the Takarazuka Line in Hyogo Prefecture in 2005.
If prosecutors decide not to pursue cases, Japan’s relatively new system of prosecution inquest panels, made up of members of the public, could still force prosecutions.
(This article was written by Ryujiro Komatsu, Masakazu Honda and Takuro Negishi.)
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