June 30 (UPI) -- The criminal trial of three executives from the Japanese utility that owns the Fukushima nuclear power plant that melted down after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 got underway Friday, with the defendants apologizing, but defending their actions in the wake of the disaster.
The men, Tsunehisa Katsumata, 77, the former CEO of Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, and former Vice Presidents Sakae Muto, 67, and Ichiro Takekuro, 71, are each charged with professional negligence resulting in death. Specifically, Tepco is being blamed for the death of 40 patients at a hospital within the evacuation zone when Fukushima's No. 1 reactor began to melt down. The patients, who were in critical care, died while being evacuated to other hospitals.
The charges represent the first time any officials have faced criminal prosecution for the Fukushima disaster, the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. At the heart of the trial will be the question of whether the executives could have predicted or prevented the meltdown from happening.
In 2008, Tepco commissioned a report that examined conditions eerily similar to the twin quake and tsunami. The report envisioned a tremor near the same strength as the magnitude-8 earthquake that struck off Japan's Pacific shore, causing a large tsunami. The report concluded Tepco's nuclear power plant was not adequately protected by its sea wall and recommended a larger wall over about 1,000 feet of coastline on the south side of the plant
Even those improvements -- which were never made -- would have been useless after the tsunami brought waves topping 46 feet to the plant's east side, facing the Pacific Ocean. Company officials argued that, even if followed, the 2008 report -- which also included government data that showed a 20 percent likelihood of an 8-magnitude or larger earthquake in the area over the next 30 years -- would not have prevented the nuclear disaster that occurred.
"I apologize for causing the serious accident," Katsumata said, before adding that "it was impossible to predict."
Prosecutors initially declined to bring charges against the executives because they agreed with Tepco the scale of the disaster was beyond the company's ability to predict. A citizens' group appealed the decision to a special panel of jurors rarely empaneled under Japanese law. The jurors overruled prosecutors' decisions and sided with the citizens' group, forcing the trial that began Friday.
"I'm glad that the first hearing was finally held. We finally [came] all this way, and this is our true beginning," said Miwa Chiwaki, one of the members of the group.
Though 18,500 people are believed to have been killed during the quake and tsunami, none of the deaths have been formally attributed by the government to the Fukushima meltdown. Still, the disaster caused some 80,000 residents in the surrounding area to flee their homes, most of whom have not returned.
Though the trial is the first time Tepco executives have faced criminal charges, the company has faced staggering financial losses in civil proceedings, forcing a government bailout and reorganization.
If convicted, the executives face a maximum five-year prison sentence.