Prosecutors have argued that the executives were aware of the dangers of a nuclear plant located on Japan’s coast.
Tokyo’s High Court has upheld a not guilty verdict for three former executives from the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, again clearing them of professional negligence over the 2011 nuclear disaster.
The decision was announced on Wednesday by activists supporting the prosecution of the three former Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives after the appeal hearing at the Tokyo High Court, which ruled to uphold a not guilty verdict by a lower court.
In the only criminal proceedings to arise out of the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chornobyl in 1986, former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 82, and one-time executives Sakae Muto, 72, and Ichiro Takekuro, 76, were all found not guilty of negligence by the Tokyo District Court in 2019.
The high court declined to comment on its verdict while the session was still ongoing on Wednesday.
Japan’s Kyodo News agency said the ruling cleared the defendants of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.
Activists supporting the prosecution of the men gathered outside the court to express their anger.
“How should I explain this ruling to kids in Fukushima who have been through so much pain?” Etsuko Kudo, 68, a former resident of the Fukushima region, told Agence France-Presse.
“It’s unbelievable that people who are responsible for such a major disaster can get away without being held criminally liable.”
The TEPCO-operated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown in 2011 and explosions sent radiation into the atmosphere after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan’s coast triggered an enormous tsunami that saw waves as high as 14 metres (46 feet) overwhelm the plant.
The tsunami left 18,500 people dead or missing, but no one was recorded as having been directly killed by the nuclear accident, which forced evacuations and left parts of the surrounding area uninhabitable.
Five-year jail terms had been sought for the three former TEPCO officials on charges of negligence resulting in the deaths of 44 people, including hospitalised patients in Fukushima prefecture who had to be hastily evacuated following the nuclear disaster.
At their criminal trial, which concluded in 2019, the argument was whether the TEPCO officials could have predicted the possibility of such a catastrophe befalling a nuclear power plant located on the coast of Japan – a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Prosecutors argued that the executives were aware of the dangers, and cited TEPCO’s knowledge of assessments that a large-scale tsunami was possible. Defence lawyers rejected that assertion, saying the executives could not have anticipated such an event and were thus not liable. The three men had pleaded not guilty when the trial began in 2017.
Presiding Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi was quoted at the time of the original acquittal as saying, “It would be impossible to operate a nuclear plant if operators are obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures.”
The outcome of the appeal hearing on Wednesday had been in the spotlight after a separate landmark verdict in July 2022 in a civil case involving the same three men and another former executive.
That case saw the four ordered to pay a staggering 13.32 trillion yen ($101bn at today’s exchange rates) for failing to prevent the disaster.
Lawyers have said the enormous compensation sum is believed to be the largest amount ever awarded in a civil lawsuit in Japan, although they also admit that was symbolic as it was well beyond the defendants’ capacity to pay the sum sought.