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