September 20, 2019
The Tokyo District Court has acquitted three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc. of professional negligence causing death or injury over the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the utility’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
At issue was whether the three officials could have foreseen the nuclear disaster triggered by tsunamis that hit Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 and averted the damage. In its verdict, the court ruled out the predictability on the part of the former senior executives, who were forcibly indicted over the disaster, highlighting the huge hurdles in holding the defendants liable for the catastrophe in a criminal court.
While the ruling acknowledged that the three men were aware that massive tsunamis could strike the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant based on a report from their subordinates and through meetings, the court pointed out that the report and other information lacked sufficient grounds and were not enough to mandate them to suspend the operation of the nuclear plant to avoid an accident.
In criminal trials, defendants may be detained if found guilty, and therefore stricter fact-finding is called for than in civil trials. The reasoning that the defendants cannot be found guilty of negligence unless they could predict damage with a sense of urgency was behind the latest ruling in favor of TEPCO bosses.
The report in question pertained to the long-term evaluation of earthquake risks that the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion released in 2002. While the evaluation stated that massive tsunamis could arise off Fukushima Prefecture, the court decision ruled out the credibility of the evaluation itself.
However, the ruling does not exonerate TEPCO from its responsibility for the nuclear crisis once and for all.
The government’s fact-finding committee set up to investigate the Fukushima disaster recognized that there were composite problems on the part of the government and TEPCO. In addition, the Diet’s independent investigation commission even concluded that the nuclear disaster was a “man-made calamity.” These findings will not be overturned by the latest court decision.
In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the then Soviet Union in 1986, the Japanese government and the country’s electric industry including TEPCO repeatedly insisted that there would be no nuclear accident in Japan. Yet decades later, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster did happen.
As a matter of course, power companies must pursue the safety of their nuclear complexes to the maximum extent in anticipation of all possible scenarios, including natural disasters. Once a nuclear accident occurs, people are driven out of their hometowns and deprived of them. More than eight years after the onset of the Fukushima crisis, over 40,000 Fukushima residents are still living as evacuees within and outside the prefecture. The price that people have to pay for nuclear disasters is way too high.
Even though the three former executives were declared innocent, TEPCO needs to continue organizational efforts to recover public trust.