Fukushima disaster: Japanese power company chiefs cleared of negligence
- Sep 20, 2019 1:52 pm GMT
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Three former executives at the company that runs the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been acquitted of failing to prevent the March 2011 nuclear meltdown, in the only criminal action resulting from the disaster.
Tsunehisa Katsumata, a former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) and former vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, had apologised for the triple meltdown at the plant, but said they could not have foreseen the massive tsunami that triggered the disaster.
Prosecutors had accused the former executives of failing to act on information that showed the risks to the plant from a major tsunami.
While no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the meltdown, the charges related to 44 elderly people who died during or after they were forcibly evacuated from local hospitals.
The defendants had all pleaded not guilty to charges of professional negligence resulting in death, arguing that the data available to them before the disaster was unreliable.
“It is difficult to deal with issues that are uncertain and obscure,” Takekuro said during the trial at the Tokyo district court.
Prosecutors had demanded a five-year prison term for each of the men.
Outside the court, protesters voiced anger at the verdict. “I cannot accept this,” one woman said.
Greenpeace accused Japan’s legal system of failing to protect the right of tens of thousands of people affected by the Fukushima meltdown.
Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany, said a guilty verdict would have dealt a “devastating blow” to Tepco, the pro-nuclear government of prime minister Shinzo Abe and Japan’s nuclear industry.
“It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the court has failed to rule based on the evidence,” Burnie, who is currently in Tokyo, said in a statement. “More than eight years after the start of this catastrophe, Tepco and the government are still avoiding being held to full account for their decades of ignoring the science of nuclear risks.”
The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered meltdowns in three of its six reactors after it was struck by a tsunami on 11 March 2011. Waves reaching up to 14 metres (46 feet) in height knocked out the plant’s backup power supply, causing fuel inside the reactors to melt.
Prosecutors had argued that Katsumata, Muto and Takekuro should have understood the risk a huge tsunami posed and had failed to take necessary safety measures.
The men were present at meetings where experts warned of the threat posed by large tsunamis off the Fukushima coast and had access to data and warning that a tsunami exceeding 10m (33ft) could trigger power loss and a major disaster at the plant.
In addition, a Tepco internal study, based on a 2002 report by a respected government panel, concluded that a wave of up to 15.7m (52ft) could strike after a magnitude-8.3 quake. The earthquake that triggered the March 2011 tsunami was recorded as magnitude-9.0.
The tsunami killed more than 18,000 people along Japan’s north-east coast, including Fukushima. The nuclear meltdown sent plumes of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of 160,000 people living near the plant, some of whom are still unable to return to their homes.
Tepco has said it will take 40 years to locate and remove the melted fuel from the reactor cores, although some experts believe decommissioning could take longer.
The government has estimated that the total cost of dismantling the plant, decontaminating surrounding areas and compensating victims at about $200bn.
The embattled utility is soon expected to decide the fate of more than a million tonnes of contaminated water stored at the site.
The most likely option – discharging the water in the Pacific ocean – is strongly opposed by local fishermen who have spent that last eight years rebuilding their industry.
Initially it appeared unlikely that the executives would ever face criminal proceedings. Prosecutors twice declined to proceed with the case, citing a lack of evidence and slim odds for a conviction.
The case went to court, however, after a judicial review panel comprising ordinary citizens ruled in 2015 that the three men should face trial.
Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing more than 5,700 Fukushima residents who filed the criminal complaint against the former executives, said before the ruling that he expected the legal battle to last about a decade because the losing side would appeal.
“This is only the beginning of a major battle,” he said at a rally. “Our ultimate goal is to eradicate dangerous nuclear plants that have thrown many residents into despair.”