Acquittal upheld for ex-TEPCO execs over Fukushima nuclear crisis


An appeals court on Wednesday upheld the acquittal of three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. who were accused of failing to prevent the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan.

The Tokyo Supreme Court decision followed a 2019 Tokyo District Court ruling that found former TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 82, along with Ichiro Takekuro, 76, and Sakae Muto, 72, both former vice presidents Could not have predicted the massive tsunami that crippled the power plant and led to meltdowns.

Tsunehisa Katsumata, former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TBEN)

The verdict acquitted the defendants of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.

It is completely unacceptable, the court-appointed lawyers acting as plaintiffs said at a press conference in the capital, adding that they could consider appealing the decision.

The verdict was met with anger and disbelief from a crowd of people, including those affected by the disaster, who had been waiting outside the courthouse for the verdict.

“An innocent decision is unthinkable. If we don’t clarify who is responsible, it will likely have consequences for the future,” said Yoshiko Furukawa, who was evacuated from Tomioka, Fukushima prefecture, to Yokohama.

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The 59-year-old said she observed the process and was under the impression that those in charge were aware of the potential danger of a nuclear accident.

Combined photo shows Ichiro Takekuro (L) and Sakae Muto, both former vice presidents of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., entering the Tokyo Supreme Court on January 18, 2023. (Pole Photo) (TBEN)

The three former TEPCO executives were charged in 2016 for allegedly failing to take tsunami countermeasures, resulting in the deaths of 44 people – including patients at a hospital in Fukushima prefecture – after being forced to endure lengthy evacuations.

Prosecutors had decided not to pursue criminal charges against the three, but that decision was eventually superseded by an Inquiry Commission made up of members of the general public who reviewed the case and called for charges.

The trial focused on whether the former executives should have foreseen the massive tsunami and prevented the accident, as it was calculated that tsunami waves of up to 15.7 meters could hit the Fukushima plant based on the long-term assessment of earthquake risks by the government in 2002. The estimate was reported to TEPCO in 2008.

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File photo shows the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex on Feb. 9, 2022. From left, No. 4, No. 3, No. 2, and No. 1 reactors. (TBEN)

The court-appointed lawyers acting as plaintiffs demanded that each of the three men receive a five-year prison sentence, while the defendants denied any wrongdoing.

In September 2019, the Tokyo court ruled that the three were not guilty. It denied the credibility of the government’s long-term assessment, saying the former executives “could not logically predict tsunami waves over 10 meters high”.

Although prosecutors alleged that the defendants failed to carry out construction of a seawall and flood prevention work on the core facilities, the lower court ruled that a temporary closure was the only guaranteed way to avoid an accident.

There have also been civil cases focusing on whether a tsunami could have been expected, with courts coming to different decisions.

In June last year, the Supreme Court’s Second Petty Bench absolved the government of responsibility for the Fukushima crisis in a lawsuit brought by evacuees, saying they could not have prevented an accident.

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Meanwhile, last July in a shareholder lawsuit, the Tokyo District Court ordered four former corporate executives, including Katsumata, Takekuro and Muto, to pay 13.3 trillion yen ($103 billion) in damages for failing to prevent the crisis.

In appeals, the Supreme Court had to make a decision based on similar testimony and evidence presented to the lower court.

On March 11, 2011, the plant with six reactors on the Pacific coast was inundated by tsunami waves greater than 10 meters caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, causing the reactor’s cooling systems to lose power.

Reactors Nos. 1 to 3 subsequently suffered core meltdowns, while hydrogen explosions damaged the building containing Nos. 1, 3 and 4.

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