Photo/IllutrationSakae Muto, former vice president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., left, answers questions at the Tokyo District Court on Oct. 16. (Courtroom sketch by Kageyoshi Koyanagi)

Former top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. are on trial on charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury from the 2011 nuclear disaster.

In the latest hearing, witnesses gave contradictory testimonies, bringing to mind the short story "Yabu no Naka" (In a Grove) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927).

In the story, a samurai is slain in the woods, but his wife, who was traveling with him, has gone missing. A bandit confesses to the murder, but the truth remains elusive as various parties come forward to give conflicting testimonies.

In the TEPCO case, an in-house study done in 2008--three years before the Great East Japan Earthquake--indicated the possibility of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant being struck by a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters high. But the utility did not take preventive measures, such as building a protective seawall.

Why? According to TEPCO employees who testified, the company’s then vice president, Sakae Muto, instructed them to postpone the measures.

One employee stated he felt "thoroughly let down" because he had been certain the company was going to act on the dire warning.

But Muto rebutted: "The tsunami's projected maximum height (of 15.7 meters) was without sufficient foundation. I am offended by the statement that I had postponed taking any measures."

He also asserted, "There were too many unknowns, and I needed more information."

Was this a case of kicking the can down the road, or careful and thorough deliberation?

I could say the truth remains a mystery, but one thing is certain: As an organization, TEPCO did not take the possibility of a giant tsunami seriously enough.

But just as the study indicated, a 15-meter tsunami did hit the nuclear plant.

Had Muto and other executives been aware of the danger and yet failed to take action, their negligence was of a profoundly grave nature.

But if the executives cannot be held responsible, it means that they were operating a plant that defied total control.

And this inevitably raises the fundamental question: Is it really possible to keep running nuclear power plants in our earthquake-prone country?

The parties involved in this trial are tasked with delving deeper to uncover what is still shrouded in mystery.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.