A Japanese court yesterday cleared three energy firm bosses of professional negligence in the only criminal trial stemming from the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster.
The three men were senior officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) operating the plant and had faced up to five years in prison if convicted.
“All defendants are not guilty,” Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi said, adding that the executives could not have predicted the scale of the tsunami that overwhelmed the plant and triggered the accident.
The decision is likely to be appealed, extending the legal wrangling over responsibility for the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl more than eight years after the disaster.
Outside the courtroom, dozens of people staged a rally, including some who had traveled from Fukushima Precinct to hear the verdict.
“It is absolutely an unjust ruling. We absolutely cannot accept this,” one woman said angrily, addressing the crowd.
“We will appeal this and continue our fight,” a man nearby shouted.
TEPCO declined to comment on the verdict, repeating its “sincere apologies for the great inconvenience and concern” caused by the disaster.
The three former executives were accused of professional negligence resulting in death and injury for failing to act on information about the risks from a major tsunami, but they argued that the data available to them at the time was unreliable.
The verdict turned on the “predictability” of the massive tsunami that swamped the plant in March 2011 after an undersea, magnitude 9 earthquake, Nagafuchi said.
There had been no proposal from the government’s nuclear watchdog “that TEPCO should suspend operations until [safety] measures are taken,” he said.
No one was killed in the nuclear meltdown, but the tsunami left 18,500 dead or missing.
The former TEPCO executives faced trial in relation to the deaths of more than 40 people who were hospitalized and died after having to be evacuated following the nuclear disaster.
Prosecutors twice declined to proceed with the case, citing insufficient evidence and a slim chance of conviction, but were forced to prosecute after a judicial review panel composed of ordinary citizens ruled that the trio should face trial.
All three defendants — former TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, and former vice presidents Sakae Muto, 69, and Ichiro Takekuro, 73 — had pleaded not guilty.
The men were present at meetings where experts warned of the anticipated height of a tsunami off the Fukushima coast and should have taken better safety measures, prosecutors said.
They argued that the executives were presented data warning that a tsunami exceeding 10m could trigger power loss and a major disaster at the plant.
When the magnitude 9 earthquake hit offshore on March 11, 2011, waves as high as 14m swamped the reactors’ cooling systems. The resulting meltdown forced massive evacuations and left parts of the surrounding area uninhabitable.
The three defendants have apologized, but argued that they could not have foreseen the disaster based on the available evidence and that they thought officials responsible for nuclear safety had taken appropriate measures.
Before the verdict, protesters outside the court said that the trial was a chance to hold someone accountable for the disaster.
“If we don’t hear guilty verdicts, our years-long efforts to bring this to court will not have been rewarded ... and Japanese society’s culture of no one taking responsibility will continue,” said 67-year-old Saki Okawara, who traveled from Miharu, Fukushima, to hear the verdict.
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