Photo/IllutrationMembers of a support group for a criminal complaint over the Fukushima nuclear accident show papers on Sept. 19 in front of the Tokyo District Court that read: “All are innocent. It is an unjustified ruling.” (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Bewilderment quickly turned into outrage after the Tokyo District Court absolved three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. of criminal responsibility for the 2011 nuclear accident that forced thousands of residents to flee.

Some of those affected by the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami say that their loved ones who died after evacuation orders were issued will receive no justice.

Soon after 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 19, members of a group that supports the criminal complaint against the former executives appeared in front of the district court and held up papers that read: “All are innocent. It is an unjustified ruling.”

People waiting there for the ruling roared in anger, with some muttering, “This must be a joke.”

Tsunehisa Katsumata, 79, a former TEPCO chairman, Ichiro Takekuro, 73, a former vice president, and Sakae Muto, 69, also a former vice president, had received mandatory indictments on charges of professional negligence resulting in the deaths of 44 people who were forced to evacuate and the injuries of others at the start of the nuclear disaster.

They were cleared of the charges after the court ruled that they could not have realistically foreseen a disaster of such magnitude.

“As I have thought, there is a gap in common sense (between the court) and the general public,” Masakatsu Kanno, 75, said after hearing the ruling in the public gallery in the court.

Kanno was relocated from Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, a host town of the crippled nuclear plant, to Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, after the accident.

When the tsunami slammed into the nuclear plant on March 11, 2011, his father, Kenzo, was an inpatient at Futaba Hospital in Okuma. Kenzo was forced to stay in the hospital for several days.

He was later transferred to evacuation centers and hospitals, covering a total distance of 250 kilometers. In June that year, he died at the age of 99.

“Many people were forced to evacuate and are still placed in a situation in which they have no prospects of returning (to their hometowns),” Kanno said. “Don’t the top executives of TEPCO have to take responsibility?”

Mieko Okubo, 66, an evacuee who returned to her hometown of Iitate, about 40 km from the nuclear plant, in spring this year, listened to the ruling on her television.

A month after the nuclear accident unfolded, residents in Iitate were told that they will be ordered to evacuate.

Okubo at the time was living with her father-in-law, Fumio, then 102. He told her: “I don’t want to evacuate. I have lived too long.”

He later hanged himself in the home.

Okubo sued TEPCO, and a court recognized a cause-and-effect relation between the nuclear accident and Fumio’s suicide.

But in the criminal trial of the former executives, the only people indicted over the nuclear disaster, the district court acquitted them all.

“People who died cannot rest in peace. Empty feelings will remain in the hearts of the bereaved family members,” Okubo said.

Prosecutors had twice dropped the case against the three former TEPCO executives, citing a lack of evidence.

But the case went to independent judicial panels of citizens, who recommended mandatory indictments against the three. They were indicted in February 2016.

The prosecution side, citing the central government’s long-term earthquake forecast, argued that the three defendants knew that a towering tsunami could hit the plant but failed to take appropriate countermeasures.

The court questioned the credibility of the forecast.

It also said that it would have been impossible for the three defendants to take measures against all natural phenomena, including tsunami.

Lawyer Shozaburo Ishida, who played the role of a prosecutor in the trial, criticized the ruling at a news conference.

“The court said that nuclear power plants are not required to have absolute safety,” he said. “This is a ruling that took the government’s nuclear power policy into consideration.”

Ishida also took issue with the court’s reasoning.

“If an accident occurs, it is impossible to recover the original state. Is it tolerable for top executives who manage a nuclear power plant to have such a (low) level of thinking?” he said.

Ishida declined to say if he would appeal the ruling to a higher court.

“I want to think about it by examining the ruling in detail and hearing the opinions of people affected (by the nuclear accident),” he said.

Lawyer Yuichi Kaido said some good did come from the trial.

“If the trial was not held, many important pieces of evidence, such as records of meetings of TEPCO and e-mails written by its executives, would not have come to light.”

The court heard, for example, that former Chairman Katsumata had “no interest” in setting up additional safety measures at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Ruiko Muto, head of the group that filed the criminal complaint against the former TEPCO executives, expressed resentment over the ruling.

“Despite the many evidence and testimonies, why weren’t (they) found guilty? I think this ruling is wrong,” she said.

(This article was written by Masahito Iinuma, Hiroshi Fukatsu, Taro Kotegawa and Takuya Kitazawa.)