TOKYO – A Japanese court on Wednesday found three former utility company executives not guilty of negligence over the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and the subsequent deaths of more than 40 elderly residents during their forced evacuation.
The Tokyo High Court ruling upheld a 2019 lower court decision that also acquitted the three former top officials of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, saying that a tsunami of the size that hit the plant was unforeseeable and the executives could not be held negligent.
The case is the only criminal trial related to the nuclear accident, in which a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami hit the plant, knocking out its cooling systems and causing three reactors to melt. A large amount of radiation was released into surrounding communities and the sea, causing tens of thousands of residents to lose their homes, jobs and community ties.
The court said ex-TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 82, and two other former executives were not guilty of causing the deaths of 44 elderly patients whose already waning health deteriorated during or after forced evacuations from a local hospital and a nursing home.
The acquittal disappointed and angered dozens of Fukushima residents and their supporters who attended the ruling or rallied outside the court.
“I’m enraged by the judges who reached the decision without fully investigating the case,“ Fukushima resident Ruiko Muto told reporters, noting that the judges did not even visit the plant. “It’s unacceptable to many of the relatives of the victims and others who were affected by the disaster.”
The executives were accused of failing to anticipate the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, and of failing to take measures that might have saved the plant. The tsunami was as high as 17 meters (56 feet) at some locations.
Katsumata and his co-defendants — former vice presidents Sakae Muto, 72, and Ichiro Takekuro, 76 — consistently pleaded not guilty and maintained that predicting the tsunami was impossible.
The defendants had been charged by a civil prosecution panel. During their trials, prosecutors demanded five-year prison sentences for each executive, arguing that TEPCO could have prevented the disaster had the plant installed sufficient safety measures such as increasing the water tightness of the reactors before the tsunami, based on a long-term tsunami assessment provided by experts. But the court dismissed their argument as an “afterthought” and said the tsunami prediction was not reliable information.
Shozaburo Ishida, who headed the prosecution, said the ruling neglected the significance of long-term tsunami assessment data. He said the prosecution plans to study the ruling and consider appealing to the Supreme Court.
“It's like saying there is nothing they can do to prevent another major accident. It's so irresponsible," said Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer representing the Fukushima residents. He said the attitude toward safety seen in the ruling could add to risks just as Japan pushes for greater use of nuclear energy.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government recently adopted a plan to maximize the number of working reactors by accelerating restarts and prolonging their operational lifespan, while developing next-generation reactors to replace those set for decommissioning, to ensure a stable energy supply and meet targets for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.
Wednesday's ruling follows a series of divisive court decisions in civil lawsuits. A ruling last July said the disaster could have been prevented if TEPCO had taken better safety measures and ordered top executives to pay more than 13 trillion yen ($99 billion). The Supreme Court in June, however, said the disaster was unforeseeable and dismissed compensation demands by thousands of residents. It acknowledged, however, that experts' tsunami predictions were credible.
Prosecutors have said TEPCO was conducting a tsunami safety review following a 2007 earthquake in Niigata in northern Japan that damaged another TEPCO plant, and that the three former executives regularly participated in the process. In March 2008, a TEPCO subsidiary projected that a tsunami as high as 15.7 meters (47 feet) could hit Fukushima, prompting the company to consider building seawalls, but the executives allegedly delayed the idea to avoid additional spending.
Government and parliamentary investigations have said TEPCO’s lack of a safety culture and weak risk management, including an underestimation of tsunami risks, led to the disaster. They said TEPCO colluded with regulators to disregard tsunami protection measures.
TEPCO has said it could have been more proactive with safety measures, but that it could not have anticipated the massive tsunami that crippled the plant.
Yoshiko Furukawa, a 59-year-old evacuee from Tomioka, a town about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the plant, said, “A big question that sits in the bottom of my stomach is, do I have to suffer because I lived there and was it my fault? No, then whose responsibility is it?"