The bottom line is that it is difficult to hold individuals criminally liable for an accident caused by an unprecedented natural disaster. That is what the court decided after closely examining the evidence.
The Tokyo District Court has handed down not-guilty rulings to three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, who had been charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury in connection with the March 2011 accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Prosecutors had decided to drop the case against the three former executives, but they faced mandatory indictment following a decision by a prosecution inquest committee made up of citizens. The indictment claimed, among other things, that the executives neglected to implement sufficient safety measures at the nuclear plant and this resulted in the accident caused by tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, which led to the deaths of hospital patients who had been forced to evacuate.
The crux of the trial was whether the three former executives could have foreseen such a tsunami occurring. Court-appointed lawyers acting as prosecutors insisted that, based on a calculation made before the accident that indicated a tsunami of a maximum of more than 15 meters was possible, “the accident could have been prevented” if appropriate measures had been taken or the plant had been shut down.
On this point, the court ruled that experts had expressed doubt about a government body’s long-term assessment of earthquake possibilities, on which the estimate was based, and that it “lacked credibility.” In addition, the court denied the possibility the three former executives could have foreseen the tsunami. This led to the not-guilty ruling.
In a criminal trial, recognizing an individual’s negligence requires proof that they were aware of a specific danger. In this case, there was insufficient evidence of this. The judicial ruling can be said to have followed the fundamentals of a criminal trial.
Trial exposed problems
The ruling also expressed the view that if the executives had been obligated to take measures after considering every single possibility that could arise from natural phenomena, they would be “forced to do the impossible.” It makes sense that the court did not demand that the nuclear plant’s safety measures at the time should have realized “zero risk,” or the complete elimination of any risk.
However, while the court did not accept the former executives had a criminal responsibility for the nuclear accident, the consequences of the accident are extremely serious. Although it might have been a catastrophe beyond what was anticipated, it is a stretch to say TEPCO’s safety measures were adequate.
During the 27-month trial, at least 20 people, including seismologists and TEPCO’s nuclear plant officials, appeared in court. One subordinate even testified that they thought more defenses against tsunami were necessary. This highlighted the fact that a sense of urgency was not shared by TEPCO officials and that the utility, as an organization, could not swiftly deal with the situation.
The trial was held in an open court as a result of the mandatory indictment. It is of no small significance that the trial revealed the gap in awareness about nuclear plant safety measures between management and those working on the front line.
It is crucial that lessons learned from this trial are used for safety measures in the future. TEPCO and the central government must not neglect efforts to minimize the possibility of accidents, based on the latest scientific knowledge and reliable research data.