Japan court holds utility execs liable for Fukushima crisis

Japan court holds utility execs liable for Fukushima crisis thumbnail

TOKYO — A Tokyo court on Wednesday ordered four former executives of the utility operating the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant to pay 13 trillion yen ($94 billion) to the company, holding them liable for the 2011 disaster.

In the closely watched ruling, the Tokyo District Court said the former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Tsunehisa Katsumata, and three other former executives failed to fulfil their duty to implement the utmost safety precautions despite knowing the risks of a serious accident in case of a major tsunami. It said they could have prevented the disaster if they had taken available scientific data more seriously and acted sooner.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami destroyed key cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing three reactors to melt down, spreading massive amounts of radiation in the area and preventing tens of thousands of residents from returning home due to contamination and safety concerns.

A group of 48 TEPCO shareholders filed the suit in 2012 demanding that Katsumata and four others — former TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu, former Vice Presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, and another executive, Akio Komori, pay 22 trillion yen ($160 billion) in damages to the company to cover its costs. It maintained that they had neglected to heed experts’ tsunami predictions and failed to take adequate tsunami precautions soon enough.

Presiding Judge Yoshihide Asakura said the former TEPCO executives “fundamentally lacked safety awareness and a sense of responsibility.” The ruling noted that TEPCO could have prevented the disaster if it had carried out necessary construction work to prevent the plant’s key areas from being flooded, including making its reactor buildings watertight.

He said all five were liable but relieved Komori of the compensation obligation because he was appointed to his executive position only a year before the disaster and couldn’t have acted even if he had tried.

Wednesday’s decision contrasted with a Supreme Court ruling last month that found the government not responsible for paying compensation sought by thousands of Fukushima residents over the loss of jobs, livelihoods and communities. It said a tsunami of that magnitude was not foreseeable even with the latest available expertise at the time.

As the current pro-business government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida calls for speedier safety checks by regulators to promote nuclear power as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuel plants, Wednesday’s ruling is a warning to nuclear operators that they may pay a price for safety negligence.

Yuichi Kaido, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ruling “will affect future management decisions at other utility companies operating nuclear plants.”

Yui Kimura, one of the plaintiffs, welcomed the ruling, saying, “An accident at a nuclear plant could cause irreversible damage to lives and the environment. The ruling shows that those who lack a commitment to bearing responsibility for that should never serve in executive positions.”

The court said the amount of compensation covers TEPCO’s costs from the disaster, including for decontamination, decommissioning and payments to affected residents.

The amount is the highest ever ordered in a lawsuit in Japan. It greatly exceeded rulings that Olympus Co. pay 59.4 billion yen ($433 million) in compensation for a coverup of losses, and that sewing machine maker Janome Co. pay 58 billion yen ($425 million) in damages for losses from extortion.

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