Fukushima: court upholds acquittals of three Tepco executives over disaster | Fukushima
Three former executives from the company that operates the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have had their not-guilty verdicts upheld by a court in Japan, dealing a blow to campaigners demanding the firm take legal responsibility for the disaster in March 2011.
The Tokyo high court on Wednesday cleared Tsunehisa Katsumata, the former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), along with former vice-presidents Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto, of professional negligence resulting in death.
The court said the defendants could not have predicted the massive tsunami that crippled the power plant and triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chornobyl in 1986.
The three men were indicted in 2016 for allegedly failing to take measures to defend the plant against tsunamis, resulting in the deaths of 44 people, including elderly patients at a hospital, who had to be evacuated after the disaster.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant, on Japan’s north-eastern coast, was hit by a massive tsunami caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest in Japan’s recorded history.
More than 18,000 people died in the tsunami, but no one was recorded as having been directly killed by the nuclear meltdowns, which caused massive radiation leaks and forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 people living nearby – some of whom have only recently been given permission to return to their homes.
Wednesday’s ruling affirmed a similar verdict delivered by the Tokyo district court in September 2019.
The trial focused on whether the former executives should have foreseen the massive tsunami and taken extra precautions, such as constructing a bigger seawall, to prevent a catastrophe.
A government evaluation of earthquake risks published in 2002 estimated that tsunami waves of up to 15.7 metres (51ft) in height could strike Fukushima Daiichi. The findings were passed on to Tepco in 2008 – three years before the disaster when a 14-metre wave struck, the Kyodo news agency said.
Tepco has argued it was powerless to take precautions against a tsunami of the size that struck the plant almost 12 years ago, and that it had done everything possible to protect it.
The original district court ruling, however, cast doubt on the credibility of the government’s evaluation, saying the defendants “could not have logically predicted tsunami waves over 10 metres in height”, Kyodo reported.
Although they have twice been acquitted in the only criminal case against Tepco executives arising from the disaster, a separate verdict in July in a civil case against the same three men and Tepco’s former president, Masataka Shimizu, ordered them to pay ¥13.32tn (£80bn at the time) for failing to prevent the disaster.
In contrast to Wednesday’s decision, the court said the government’s assessment had been reliable enough to oblige Tepco to take preventive measures.
While that ruling – the first to find Tepco executives liable for damage resulting from the disaster – carries symbolic significance, lawyers have said the defendants do not have the means to pay the sum, believed to be the largest ever awarded in a civil lawsuit in Japan.
Media reports said they would be expected to pay as much as their assets allowed.