Tokyo court clears 3 executives of negligence over 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster

A Tokyo court on Thursday cleared three former Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) executives of negligence for the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the only criminal case to arise out of the nuclear crisis.

Verdict makes it likely no one will be held criminally responsible

Tokyo Electric Power Company's former chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, right, and one-time vice-presidents Ichiro Takekuro, centre, and Sakae Muto, left, arrive at the Tokyo District Court for their trial on Thursday. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

A Tokyo court on Thursday cleared three former Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) executives of negligence for the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the only criminal case to arise out of the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chornobyl in 1986.

Former Tepco chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, and one-time executives Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro were all found not guilty by the Tokyo District Court. Dressed in dark suits and ties, the defendants sat in silence as Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi read the judgment.

A woman in the public gallery, where about 100 people were seated, shouted "unbelievable," on hearing the verdict. Outside the court were displaced residents and protesters.

The trial, which started in June 2017, was conducted by state-appointed lawyers after prosecutors decided not to bring charges. Legal experts had said it was unlikely the three former executives of Japan's biggest power provider would be found guilty, given prosecutors had decided not to take the case to trial.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, about 220 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, was rocked by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011, sparking three reactor meltdowns and prompting Japan to shut down its entire fleet of nuclear reactors.

More than 160,000 residents fled nearby towns in the aftermath as radiation from the reactors contaminated water, food and air.

The Fukushima meltdown is often compared to the April 1986 Chornobyl disaster in Pripyat, northern Ukraine, that followed a botched test of a Soviet nuclear power plant. The explosion sent clouds of nuclear material billowing across Europe and forced tens of thousands of people to flee.

'Profoundly manmade disaster'

Lawyers acting as prosecutors said the three executives had access to data and studies anticipating the risk to the area from a tsunami exceeding 10 metres in height that could trigger a power loss and cause a nuclear disaster.

Nagafuchi ruled that to hold the executives responsible for criminal negligence, lawyers had to prove it was possible to predict tsunamis.

Activists hold banners and placards in front of Tokyo District Court after the three former officials from the firm that operated the Fukushima nuclear plant were cleared. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Nagafuchi said that, while the executives may have been aware of the risk of a major tsunami before the disaster, it was not established they could have completed preventive measures in time.

A commission appointed by Japan's parliament concluded in 2012 that Fukushima was a "profoundly manmade disaster" that "could and should have been foreseen and prevented, [while] its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response."

In 2016, the government estimated the total cost of plant dismantling, decontamination of affected areas and compensation would be 21.5 trillion yen ($264 billion Cdn), or about a fifth of Japan's annual budget.

Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence when declining to bring charges, but a civilian judiciary panel twice voted to indict the executives, overruling the determination not to go to trial.

Citizen judiciary panels, selected by lottery, are a rarely used feature of Japan's legal system introduced after World War Two to curb bureaucratic overreach.