By Aaron Sheldrick
TOKYO (Reuters) - A Tokyo court will hand down a verdict later this week on whether three Tokyo Electric Power executives are liable for the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the only criminal case to arise out of the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.
The trial, which started in June 2017, was conducted by state-appointed lawyers after prosecutors decided not to bring charges against the executives of the company known as Tepco.
Former Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and onetime executives Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro apologized during the first hearing at the Tokyo District Court for causing trouble to the victims and society, but pleaded not guilty.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, located about 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011, sparking three reactor meltdowns and prompting Japan to shut down its entire fleet of nuclear reactors.
Lawyers acting as prosecutors said the three executives had access to data and studies anticipating the risk to the area from a tsunami exceeding 10 meters (33 feet) in height that could trigger power loss and cause a nuclear disaster.
Lawyers for the defendants, however, said the estimates were not well established, and even experts had divisive views on how the Fukushima reactors would be affected by a tsunami.
The three former Tepco executives are the first individuals to face criminal charges for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but a high bar for proof may prevent a conviction. Prosecutors had declined to bring charges, citing insufficient evidence, but a civilian judiciary panel twice voted to indict the executives, overruling the determination not to go to trial.
"If I were a gambling man I would certainly not bet on a conviction. The citizen-panel initiated trials do not have a good success rate," Colin Jones, a professor at the Doshisha Law School in Kyoto, told Reuters.
"The charitable view would be that prosecutors don't take cases unless they know they can win, so it shouldn't be surprising that the cases they don't want to take end up being losers," he said.
Citizen judiciary panels, selected by lottery, are a rarely used feature of Japan's legal system introduced after World War Two to curb bureaucratic overreach.
Indictments brought by the panels, however, have a low conviction rate. One review of eight of these cases by the Eiko Sogo Law Office found just one, equal to a 17 percent conviction rate, compared with an overall rate of 98 percent in Japan.
Japan's government estimated in 2016 that the total cost of dismantling Tepco's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, decontaminating the affected areas, and paying compensation would amount to around $200 billion.
More than 160,000 residents fled nearby towns in the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami as radiation from the reactor meltdowns contaminated water, food and air.
(Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Tom Hogue)