TOKYO — A Japanese court on Thursday found three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. not guilty of professional negligence over the 2011 tsunami-induced reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Former Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, and two former colleagues had been accused of failing to take adequate precautions to safeguard the plant against the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami that struck the region on March 11, 2011. The disaster crippled the plant and spread radioactive contamination across a swath of northern Japan.
The trial at Tokyo’s District Court marked the only criminal proceedings resulting from the nuclear explosions and meltdown, which forced the evacuation of more than 165,000 people. Tens of thousands are prevented from returning due to lingering contamination.
The court also found the trio not guilty of causing the deaths of 44 elderly patients who were forcibly evacuated from local hospitals.
Scientists had warned in advance that there was a significant risk of an earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s northeast coast, putting the plant at risk. But the three men argued they couldn’t have predicted such a massive tsunami, an argument ultimately accepted by the court.
“It would be impossible to operate a nuclear plant if operators are obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures,” Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi said in handing down the ruling.
The Fukushima meltdown was the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, and caused a reevaluation of the risks of nuclear power globally, especially in Germany.
Japan’s government shut down the country’s nuclear reactors following the disaster and imposed new safety rules. But in recent years Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reopened some plants and pushed to restart more, partly to reduce Japan’s reliance on fossil fuels but also because the nuclear lobby retains considerable influence within the corridors of power, experts say.
There was anger at the verdict outside the courtroom, where former residents of the affected area and activists had gathered. The legal action, brought by former residents, was delayed for years after prosecutors twice refused to bring a case.
Greenpeace condemned the court’s decision, arguing Japan’s legal system had failed to stand up for the rights of people affected by the meltdown.
“A guilty verdict would have been a devastating blow not just to Tepco but the Abe government and the Japanese nuclear industry. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that the court has failed to rule based on the evidence,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace, 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 court heard evidence that Tepco executives ignored warnings that the Fukushima Daiichi plant might be susceptible to earthquake and tsunami danger and failed to invest in measures that might have prevented the catastrophe, such as raising the height of the sea wall shielding the plant and installing additional emergency generators.
The 10-yard-high tsunami that followed the earthquake flooded the plant and knocked out the electric power that cooled the reactors, causing multiple explosions and reactor meltdowns.
The power utility was warned between 2002 and 2008 that there was a 20 percent chance that an earthquake greater than magnitude-8 could occur off Japan’s east coast during the next three decades, potentially triggering a tsunami higher than the protective sea wall.
But company executives, struggling with losses from the shutdown of another nuclear plant after an earthquake in Niigata in 2008, were accused of delaying preventive action at Fukushima for cost reasons.
“We once again offer our sincerest apologies for causing great trouble and worries to many people, including people in Fukushima Prefecture,” Tepco said in a statement after the ruling.
The majority-state-owned company said it was “putting all efforts” into Fukushima’s reconstruction, providing compensation for disaster-related damage, and carrying out decommissioning work and decontamination. It added that it was determined to reinforce security measures at nuclear power plants.