Three former executives of the utility operating the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have been cleared of professional negligence by a Tokyo court.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives, former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and vice-presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, were accused of failing to implement adequate countermeasures to safeguard the plant against the magnitude 9 earthquake and towering 15 meter tsunami that devastated the region on March 11, 2011.
The tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, causing the evacuation of more than 160,000 residents living in the immediate vicinity. Most of them have been unable to return, or chosen not to, due to lingering high levels of radiation.
In the only criminal case resulting from the disaster, which was the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, the trio were acquitted of professional negligence leading to death and injury. Prosecutors argued that there had been sufficient warnings and evidence that such an event could occur.
In 2002 one Tohoku University professor had warned that a tsunami of more than 15 metres could hit the plant, while in the same year an internal TEPCO study, based on a government report, had itself concluded that a 15.7 meter wave could hit the plant in the event of an magnitude 8.3 quake.
However TEPCO executives ignored the evidence and failed to improve the plant’s defence system.
In a statement read during a court hearing a former TEPCO tsunami countermeasures official, Kazuhiko Yamashita, said the three executives had first approved plans to carry out tsunami safety measures but later shelved the plans due to concerns that they may lead to calls to shut down the plant.
Defence lawyers argued that even if countermeasures had been carried out, they would not have prevented a disaster which was of a scale that nobody had predicted.
Prosecutors had sought 5 year prison terms for the trio but in concluding the two-year trial, presiding judge, Kenichi Nagafuchi, agreed with the defence, ruling that the executives could not have foreseen the magnitude 9 quake.
Though TEPCO claims the nuclear disaster itself did not lead directly to any fatalities, around 50 residents — mostly elderly — died as a result of the enforced evacuation.
While protestors outside the court, some who had traveled from Fukushima 160 miles away, expressed their dismay at the ruling, former TEPCO chairman Katsumata said that he wanted to reiterate his apologies for the trouble caused to Japanese society by the nuclear disaster.
In some of the 30 civil cases that have been brought against TEPCO and the government by over 10,000 evacuees, district courts have ruled the utility could have predicted and prevented the nuclear crisis.
Sources: NHK, Mainichi Shimbun
Japan’s new environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, says the country should shut down all its nuclear reactors to ensure there are no more Fukushimas.
Koizumi, who is the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said during his first news conference Wednesday that he wants to look into “how we will scrap [nuclear reactors], not how to retain them.”
Koizumi Jr. was appointed environment minister, which overseas Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, during a recent Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Shinzi Abe, a notoriously pro-nuclear hardliner.
As indeed was Koizumi’s father, until the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, when massive earthquakes and tsunami triggered three nuclear reactor meltdowns and explosions, leading to the evacuation of 160,000 residents.
The former prime minister has since become a highly vocal opponent of nuclear energy.
Japan currently has six nuclear reactors in operation —a fraction of the 54 that were online before the March disasters that were then supplying almost 30 percent of the country’s electricity.
Japan’s government wants to increase reactor operation so that nuclear power to make up between 20% and 22% of the overall energy mix by 2030.
Despite each reactor having to go through multi-billion-dollar checks for relicensing under new safety standards, attempts to get more reactors online have been thwarted by protestors who believe nuclear power has no place in a country prone to major earthquakes and tsunami. Some nuclear plants have even been found to sit atop active geological faults.
Environment minister Koizumi’s belief that Japan can and should do without nuclear power is unsurprisingly dismissed by other atomic energy supporters in Abe’s government.
“There are risks and fears about nuclear power,” trade and industry minister Isshu Sugawara told reporters. “But ‘zero-nukes’ is, at the moment and in the future, not realistic.”
Japan’s environment minister says radioactive water being stored at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant must be dumped into the ocean, a statement that comes just days after South Korea expressed concerns over the wastewater to the international nuclear watchdog.
Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada says draining the more than 1 million tons of contaminated water being stored at the Fukushima plant into the sea is the “only option” left as the site is running out of space to store it.
The volume of radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has been growing daily since the March 2011 meltdowns at the plant. It is the result of groundwater mixing with radioactive contaminants from three reactors that experienced meltdowns and explosions following a massive earthquake and tsunami in the region.
Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) initially claimed it had stripped the contaminated water of all dangerous particles except for tritium, but was forced to backtrack following tests that showed the wastewater still contained many highly dangerous radionuclides, including strontium and caesium.
The government is awaiting an assessment from an expert panel before deciding on how to dispose of the radioactive water, though local Fukushima fisheries and other residents continue to protest its release into the Pacific.
Neighbour South Korea is also concerned. Last Thursday, Seoul sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency expressing concerns over the radioactive wastewater, calling on the nuclear watchdog to play a more active role. It also summoned a senior Japanese embassy official last month to explain how Japan plans to deal with the water and has asked Japan “to take a wise and prudent decision on the issue.”
During an IAEA board meeting in Vienna Sept. 10, Japan’s ambassador Takeshi Hikihara reportedly said Japan has been transparent in showing to the international community how it has been dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear accident and is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of the marine environment.
TEPCO has said it will run out of storage space at the plant by 2022, while environment minister Harada says the dumping of the current load — which is being stored within the plant’s grounds in more than 1,000 containers — could makeup to 17 years, once it has been treated and diluted to acceptably safe levels.
While Harada believes Japan now has no choice but to dump the water, Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace, criticised Harada's "innacurate and misleading statement" and called the discharge of the water into the ocean “the worst option” available.
“The only viable option, and it’s not without risks, is the long-term storage of this water in robust steel tanks over at least the next century, and the parallel development of water processing technology,” he says. As Japan has no equivalent to Europe’s Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), Greenpeace has voiced its concerns over the water crisis with the UN International Maritime Organisation, he added.
A number of proposals to treat the water were submitted to a Japanese government task force by nuclear companies, all of which were dismissed as being impracticable – a euphemism for “too expensive,” says Burnie.
“The reality is there is no end to the water crisis at Fukushima, a crisis compounded by poor decision-making by both TEPCO and the government,” he says.