Tokyo, Japan – A court in Japan on Thursday acquitted three former executives at the company that runs the Fukushima nuclear power facility crippled by a tsunami-spawned meltdown in 2011 of criminal responsibility for the disaster.
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast on the afternoon of March 11 that year triggered an enormous tsunami that overwhelmed Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
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Waves as high as 14 metres (46 feet) high caused meltdowns and hydrogen explosions that spewed radiation into the atmosphere and forced mass evacuations, resulting in the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
The disaster shocked Japan, which shut down the nuclear plants that had for decades been the source of cheap energy for the world’s third-largest economy.
Lawyers prosecuting the case had sought five-year prison sentences for TEPCO`s former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, as well as former vice-presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro on charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.
The Tokyo District Court acquitted all three, according to public broadcaster NHK, Kyodo News agency and other major media.
“It would be impossible to operate a nuclear plant if operators are obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures,” Kyodo quoted Presiding Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi as saying in handing down the ruling.
Environmental group Greenpeace criticised the decision, saying in a statement that Japan’s legal system had “once again failed to stand up for the rights” of victims of the disaster.
The group’s senior nuclear specialist Shaun Burnie told Al Jazeera the case was “highly political” so the decision was not hugely surprising.
“My gut feeling is that this is how the nuclear industry got away with everything prior to Fukushima and they’re still getting away with it today, except the Japanese public is united in its opposition to nuclear power,” he said.
“It`s clearly a disappointment, it’s a setback, but the people of Japan fully understand they have to continue to fight to shut down all nuclear power in Japan to stop the next Fukushima accident from ever happening
A spokeswoman at the Tokyo District Court confirmed that a decision of not guilty was handed down to the three former executives but declined to provide details.
TEPCO declined to comment on the outcome of the trial, but reiterated its remorse over the disaster.
“We would like to once again express our sincere apologies for the great inconvenience and concern that the TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Accident has caused on the people of Fukushima Prefecture and society as a whole,” the company said.
Prosecutors wanted the three held accountable for the deaths of 44 people including patients from a nearby hospital, many of whom were unable to survive the strain of being evacuated under chaotic conditions.
At issue was whether the former officials could have foreseen the possibility of such a catastrophe in earthquake- and tsunami-prone Japan and taken measures to protect the plant, which was built on the coast.
Prosecutors argued that the men knew of the dangers, citing TEPCO’s knowledge of assessments that a large-scale tsunami was possible. The defence rejected that, saying the former officials could not have anticipated such an event and were thus not liable. The men pleaded not guilty when the trial began in 2017.
The question of responsibility remains an open wound in consensus-orientated Japan, especially in the disaster region where so many lives were turned upside down. More than 160,000 people were forced to flee after the meltdown, and some areas near the plant remain uninhabitable.
Civil litigation surrounding the accident has yielded some victories against TEPCO but none of its officials or anyone in the Japanese government, which regulates the nuclear industry, have been held criminally accountable.
“Nobody’s taken responsibility and that’s been the real big issue here,” said Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of Kyoto-based environmental group Green Action that is campaigning for the end of nuclear power in Japan.
Smith likens the situation to the 2008 global financial crisis when irresponsible actions by banks and other institutions caused huge economic damage but ultimately resulted in no one alleged to be responsible going to prison.
“It’s sort of similar but the nuclear version of it,” she said.
The tsunami inundated a wide swathe of Japan’s northeast coast, gobbling up cars, homes and buildings and hurling them out to sea while also overturning ships and boats, many of which ended up on land. The combined toll of those dead or missing exceeds 22,000, according to official figures.
Habitable communities along the coast and further away from the nuclear plant have made huge strides in cleaning up damage and debris, but the emotional scars, as well as the environmental and economic effects of the nuclear disaster, are expected to linger for decades.
The Japanese government estimated in 2016 that ongoing work to clean up the Fukushima accident would cost 21.5 trillion yen ($198.3bn). But a private estimate earlier this year by the Japan Center for Economic Research said the bill could reach 81 trillion yen ($749bn), nearly four times higher.
Shinjiro Koizumi, newly appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month as minister for the environment and nuclear issues, said at his first news conference last week that Japan needed to wean itself off nuclear power.
“I would like to study how we will scrap them, not how to retain them,” Koizumi said, according to Kyodo News agency, referring to the country’s reactors. “We will be doomed if we let nuclear accidents recur.”
Koizumi also made a point of visiting Fukushima on his first full day in office, meeting the prefecture’s governor and offering words of support to the region.
“I want to work with everyone to push forward recovery as there are plenty of very serious problems,” Koizumi, the son of Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister who has become an anti-nuclear advocate, told reporters.
Abe, who appointed Koizumi to the cabinet said in 2016 that Japan “cannot do without” nuclear power.
Still, the Fukushima disaster forced Japan to rethink its use of nuclear energy and led to a sharp reduction in its contribution to the country’s power needs.
According to Smith, nuclear power is now only generating 2.7 percent of Japan’s electricity, down from a peak of about 30 percent before the Fukushima accident.
There were 54 nuclear power stations in Japan at the time of the Fukushima disaster, but the number has fallen to 33 as a result of decommissioning, she added. Nine of those plants have restarted while 16 more are waiting for approval.
But campaigners say that despite the decline, nuclear power remains a danger for Japan.
“There’s far less reactors operating and therefore there’s a reduced risk,” Burnie had said ahead o the decision.
“But the Abe government policy is to restart up to 30 reactors in the coming years,” he said, referring to Japan’s prime minister. “I don’t think they’ll achieve that. But again, you still have the same conditions being set for another catastrophe.”
“There’s no country in the world where the whole country is seismically active and then it also has a lot of nuclear power plants,” she said. “Japan is unique that way.”