Former power bosses have been cleared of any guilt in relation to 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The ruling, by the Tokyo District Court, brought an end to the only criminal trial that followed the disaster. The court found three former executives at Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) not guilty of professional negligence.
An earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 led to meltdowns at three of Fukushima’s reactors. They released huge amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and sea. Tens of thousands of residents are still unable to return home due to radiation contamination.
The former bosses on trial were ex-Tepco chair Tsunehisa Katsumata, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro. They had been charged with failing to foresee the tsunami and failing to take preventative measures that may have protected the plant. All pled not guilty.
The court also found that they were not guilty of causing the deaths of 44 elderly patients whose health deteriorated during or after forced evacuations from a local hospital.
Prosecutors had called for each to face a five-year prison sentence. Protesters gathered outside the court as the former Tepco bosses were cleared, with placards reading, “Unjust sentence.”
The court ruled that Tepco officials were aware of a need to improve tsunami prevention measures. But it said their measures were in line with government safety standards at the time.
It was not clear whether bosses could have completed preventative measures in time for the tsumani.
More than 5,700 Fukushima residents had filed the criminal complaint. Their lawyer, Hiroyuki Kawai, said the case was “only the beginning of a major battle”.
“Our ultimate goal is to eradicate dangerous nuclear plants that have thrown many residents into despair,” he said.
Prosecutors said the three on trial had access to scientific data anticipating the risk of a tsunami exceeding 30 feet triggering a loss of power and severe accidents. The defence argued that the projection wasn’t well-established, and that the actual damage was greater than projected.
In March 2008 a Tepco subsidiary projected that a tsunami as high as 47 feet could hit Fukushima. The court was shown emails between safety officials and two Tepco vice-presidents suggesting increasing concern and the need for more tsunami measures at Fukushima.
In July 2012 a six-month parliamentary investigation into the meltdowns concluded that collusion between Japan’s government, regulators and Tepco caused the disaster. It said the disaster was a “profoundly man-made” one that “could and should have been foreseen and prevented”.
The report found that regulators and Tepco were aware of the risk that a tsunami could cut power to Fukushima since 2006. But they ignored this, and failed to respond properly when the meltdowns happened.
Fukushima is one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. Radioactive material from the meltdowns were found as far away as Canada and in the US food supply.
But governments remain committed to dangerous nuclear power, partly because it is wedded to nuclear weapons.
Instead of moving quickly to deal with the crisis, Japan’s government and nuclear firms tried to cover it up. They spent days claiming that the radioactive leaks were “under control”.
As the major of Minimisoma, 12 miles from Fukushima, said at the time, “We weren’t told when the first reactor exploded, we only heard about it on television.
“The government doesn’t tell us anything. They’re leaving us to die.”