International, Litigation, Nuclear Reactor

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Aftermath: No One Was Found Criminally Liable

By: Yating Wang

Eight years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, on September 19, 2019, the criminal trial came to an end in which the Tokyo District Court acquitted three former Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPC) executives. The executives, Tsunehisa Katsumata, Sakae Muto, and Ichiro Takekuro, were the only people charged over the handling of the disaster, accused of criminal negligence for failing to take measures that would have protected the nuclear plant from the damage caused by the tsunami.

Located along the Pacific “ring of fire,” Japan sits on the edges of several continental and oceanic tectonic plates. This specific location brings Japan frequent earthquakes, including the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. This magnitude 9.0 earthquake then triggered a massive tsunami that flooded more than 200 square miles of coastal land, leading to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Besides the casualty caused by the earthquake and tsunami (over 15,000 people were killed), one man died from nuclear radiation, and 2202 died from evacuation related to the radiation. This meltdown also caused a deleterious effect on Japanese stock farming, agriculture, fishery, and the environment due to nuclear contamination on land and water.

The public and particularly the victims can’t help but ask, for such misery, how can no one take any responsibility? The response from the defendants and the judges is that it was impossible to predict and prevent the earthquake and tsunami.

However, in 2008, three years before the accident, both a TEPC company analysis and a government assessment found that a tsunami exceeding 50 feet could hit the Fukushima nuclear plant. Two of the three defendants were warned of the danger. TEPCO was considering taking measures by 2008 or 2009, but the executives allegedly delayed the idea to avoid additional spending. Since only one worker died from the radiation itself and all the rest of the casualty died from evacuation, the loss could have been much lessened by TEPC making and implementing precautionary evacuation plans in response to the warning. The social condemnation on TEPC is not based on hindsight bias; rather, given the knowledge and warning of a high likelihood of a tsunami hitting the plant, the criminal negligence claim lies on their failure and refusal to take any measures.

The acquittal may seem odd to those familiar with the Japanese criminal justice system’s infamous conviction rate of 99.9%. But this case was a rare anomaly: a case Japan’s public prosecutors did not want to bring and decided not to bring. Despite the prosecutors’ reluctance, the firm will of the public pushed this prosecution forward—— the TEPC executives were eventually indicted by Prosecutorial Review Commissions (PRC). PRCs are panels of randomly selected citizens who oversee prosecutorial decisions and can force prosecution, parallel to the grand jury system in the United States.

Outside the courtroom, dozens of people staged a rally——they believed this was an unjust and unacceptable ruling to Japanese people. Large organizations in Japan, both corporate and governmental, can diffuse responsibility. Despite suffering the second-most devastating nuclear accident in history, Japanese people would still struggle to hold a single person liable who directly involved in making policies that led up to it.