Editorials

Acquittals don't absolve Tepco of blame for disaster

The trial of three former top executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. over the March 2011 meltdowns at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant focused on whether the executives were able to foresee in concrete terms the possibility of a giant tsunami flooding the facility — as it did in the Great East Japan Earthquake — and whether they neglected to take steps to avert the catastrophe. In acquitting the three executives of the charges against them, the Tokyo District Court determined that they could not predict the onslaught of a giant tsunami to the extent that obliged them to halt the plant’s operation to avoid a major accident.

Along with the criminal trial of the former executives, Tepco and the central government have become the target of civil lawsuits over their responsibility for the Fukushima nuclear disaster. More than 10,000 people displaced in the aftermath of the crisis have filed some 30 suits across the country, seeking damages from the government and the power company. Court decisions in several cases recognized that Tepco knew about the risk of a giant tsunami hitting the plant but neglected to take measures against such an eventuality and ordered the firm to pay damages.

The three former Tepco executives stood trial on a mandatory indictment by a prosecution inquest panel of citizens after prosecutors twice decided not to file charges against them. They were accused of professional negligence over the death of 44 patients at a local hospital who died as they were forced to evacuate in the wake of the nuclear accident. In a criminal trial, which identifies the responsibility of accused individuals and punishes them if they’re found guilty, the demands for proof and evidence are more stringent than in civil lawsuits, and the hurdles for establishing criminal responsibility are far higher. In a sense, the acquittals of the former Tepco executives highlight the limitations of criminal trials in pursuing the responsibility of executives of large firms for serious accidents.

At issue was a long-term assessment of earthquake risks released in 2002 by a government institute that warned of the possibility of large tsunami along the Pacific coast, including Fukushima Prefecture. Based on this, a Tepco subsidiary in 2008 compiled an estimate that a tsunami hitting the Fukushima No. 1 plant on the coast could reach as high as 15.7 meters. However, Tepco took no steps to improve the plant’s defenses against tsunami, such as erecting a seawall, before it was actually hit on March 11, 2011, by a tsunami roughly as high as predicted.

Thursday’s ruling said the 2002 quake risk assessment lacked sufficient grounds and was thus of limited reliability — in support of the argument made by the accused. It could not be determined, the court said, that the Tepco executives were able to predict the onslaught of a massive tsunami with a level of certainty that obliged them to take measures to avert the risk of a severe tsunami accident, including suspending the plant’s operation while beefing up its defenses. The court noted that operating a nuclear power plant would be impossible if the operator was required to take steps against all possible tsunami risks — and that the impact on the local community by halting a plant’s operations needs to be taken into account.

The acquittals of the former Tepco executives do not relieve the firm of its responsibility over the 2011 nuclear disaster, which has had an enormous impact on Fukushima residents. Eight years after the tsunami-flooded plant lost power supply to cool its reactors and suffered the meltdowns, nearly 50,000 people remain displaced. Problems in Tepco’s measures against such severe accidents were highlighted in probes into the Fukushima disaster by experts commissioned by the government and the Diet. The ruling needs to prompt the power company and the government alike to look once again into what went wrong — and whether sufficient safety measures are being taken against nuclear plant accidents today.

More effective ways of identifying the causes of major accidents like the nuclear disaster need to be explored. To do that, it is crucial to shed light on what actions individual players in a company or other organization, including the top executives, took based on what information they had access to. In a criminal procedure, you are not obliged to say anything that will put you at a disadvantage, which reportedly makes it hard to identify the causes of major accidents involving a big organization through criminal investigation and trial. Various options, including a system that grants immunity to people involved in such accidents to testify in order to identify their causes and prevent a recurrence, as well as the creation of criminal punishment for organization consisting of heavy fines, should be explored.