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Japanese power company top executives cleared of negligence over Fukushima disaster

19 September 2019

Three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) which runs the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have been acquitted of failing to prevent the March 2011 nuclear meltdown.

Inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant - Image: Tepco
Inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant - Image: Tepco

This, the only criminal action resulting from the disaster, saw former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro accused of failing to act on information that showed the risks to the plant from a major tsunami.

While no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the meltdown, the charges related to 44 elderly people who died during or after they were forcibly evacuated from local hospitals.

The defendants had all pleaded not guilty to charges of professional negligence resulting in death, arguing that the data available to them before the disaster was unreliable. They apologised for the triple meltdown at the plant, but said they could not have foreseen the massive tsunami that triggered the disaster.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered meltdowns in three of its six reactors after it was struck by a tsunami on 11 March 2011. Waves reaching up to 14 metres in height knocked out the plant’s backup power supply, causing fuel inside the reactors to melt.

Prosecutors had argued that Katsumata, Muto and Takekuro should have understood the risk a huge tsunami posed and had failed to take necessary safety measures. They demanded a five-year prison term for each of the men.

The men were present at meetings where experts warned of the threat posed by large tsunamis off the Fukushima coast and had access to data and warning that a tsunami exceeding 10m could trigger power loss and a major disaster at the plant.

In addition, a Tepco internal study, based on a 2002 report by a government panel, concluded that a wave of up to 15.7m could strike after a magnitude-8.3 quake. The earthquake that triggered the March 2011 tsunami was recorded as magnitude-9.0.

The tsunami killed more than 18,000 people along Japan’s north-east coast, including Fukushima.

The nuclear meltdown sent plumes of radiation into the atmosphere and forced the evacuation of 160,000 people living near the plant, some of whom are still unable to return to their homes.

Tepco has said it will take 40 years to locate and remove the melted fuel from the reactor cores, although some experts believe decommissioning could take longer.

The government has estimated that the total cost of dismantling the plant, decontaminating surrounding areas and compensating victims at about $200bn.

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