Court Judged Tsunami Was Not Legally Foreseeable

A judicial ruling has deemed it unreasonable to hold individuals criminally liable for an accident at a nuclear power plant that was caused by an unprecedented natural disaster.

The Tokyo High Court has found not guilty three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, who were charged with professional negligence resulting in death and injury in connection with the 2011 accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Prosecutors had received complaints filed against the three by residents and others who wanted them to be held criminally responsible, but decided not to pursue a case against them. After that, however, the three men faced mandatory indictment following a decision by a committee for inquest of prosecution comprising members of the general public.

As the reason for their indictment, the three were accused of neglecting safety measures at the nuclear power plant, leading to the accident that was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and resulting in the deaths of hospitalized patients and others in Fukushima Prefecture who were forced to evacuate.

The point of contention in the trial was whether the defendants could have foreseen the possibility of a massive tsunami hitting the plant. The court ruled that the central government’s “long-term assessment,” which pointed out in 2002 the possibility of a huge earthquake, “cannot be deemed to have provided information that made them aware of a realistic possibility.”

Based on this position, the court said that since the tsunami was larger than expected, “even if countermeasures had been taken, there is no evidence that they would have been successful.”

This may be based on reasoning that as long as the three could not have foreseen the tsunami, it would have been difficult for them to prevent the accident.

To establish foreseeability in a criminal trial, it is necessary to prove that the defendants were specifically aware of the danger. Following mandatory indictment by court-appointed lawyers acting as prosecutors, a Tokyo District Court ruling in 2019 also found no such foreseeability and acquitted the three men.

However, the acquittal of TEPCO’s former management members does not negate the company’s responsibility as a corporation.

The law on nuclear damage compensation stipulates that the operator of a nuclear power plant must provide compensation for the damage caused by a nuclear accident. After the accident, TEPCO set the amount of compensation based on the guidelines of the Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation. But residents and others filed a series of lawsuits in many places, claiming that the amounts were insufficient.

Evacuees were suddenly forced to leave their hometowns and live unfamiliar lives in new areas. Last month, the committee compiled new guidelines that expanded the scope and amount of compensation. TEPCO should sincerely discuss with the victims whether the nature of the compensation under the new guidelines is appropriate.

In Japan, supply and demand for electricity continues to be tight, and nuclear power plants, which can provide a stable supply of electricity, are becoming increasingly important.

The central government has said it will proceed with the restart of nuclear reactors, and will also hasten to build new reactors in new locations or add new reactors to existing locations as well as to develop next-generation reactors. The central government and operators of electricity businesses must not forget the lessons learned from the accident and must work to ensure the facilities are safe.

It is also essential to make efforts to strengthen the dissemination of information to the public and deepen public understanding of the safety of the nuclear plants.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 19, 2023)