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Govt, energy firm liable for roles in Fukushima
Publication Date : 16-09-2013
A decision by prosecutors has brought to light how difficult it is to establish criminal responsibility for the consequences of an unprecedentedly massive disaster.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office announced Thursday it would not indict any of the 42 people against whom complaints had been filed seeking indictment on charges of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries in connection with the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Among them were top executives of Tepco and government leaders at the time of the outbreak of the nuclear crisis.
The prosecutors office said the gigantic tsunami triggered by the March 11, 2011, earthquake should be considered unpredictable and the failure of Tepco management and nuclear regulatory authorities to take sufficient precautionary measures in advance did not constitute criminal negligence.
The office also said an on-the-spot inspection that then Prime Minister Naoto Kan conducted at the crippled nuclear plant immediately after the disaster could not be deemed to have hindered the venting of steam to lower pressure inside the reactors.
Given that the prosecution could not produce enough clear evidence to establish a case for criminal negligence, the decision not to indict should be considered inevitable.
In the nuclear crisis, the power sources for the backup generators for the plant’s reactors were disabled, rendering them unable to pump cooling water and eventually leading to reactor core meltdowns and hydrogen explosions in reactors Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The result was that radioactive substances were spewed from the tsunami-wrecked plant, exposing a large number of residents in the vicinity to radiation.
After determining the loss of power supply was caused by the tsunami, the prosecutors office, after hearing the opinions of seismologists, concluded the colossal scale of the tsunami was unforeseeable even by experts.
Be ready for the unforeseen
To establish a case for professional negligence in such a situation, there must be evidence to prove failure to take necessary steps despite being aware of the potential danger of the tsunami, instead of merely a nebulous feeling that a crisis could occur.
The fact that the tsunami was an unpredictable natural disaster posed a high hurdle for the prosecutors.
It is noteworthy that probes into professional negligence focus on individuals, which was another hurdle in this case. The extremely chaotic nature of the crisis made it very hard for prosecutors to charge a particular individual with criminal responsibility for the accident.
In the United States, courts sometimes award huge punitive damages for unscrupulous corporate behaviour to prevent similar harmful actions. In Japan, however, there is no such system even in civil litigation.
In light of the grave impact the nuclear crisis has had on society and the nation’s economy, both Tepco and the government still bear heavy responsibility for the disaster, even though they are exempt from criminal responsibility.
The government panel tasked with investigating the accident has pointed out that Tepco had been complacent about safety. It also noted that the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry’s former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and other nuclear power generation regulators had left the task of implementing safety measures up to Tepco. Both the government and regulators left the studies of risk factors on a back burner. The Diet commission that investigated the accident declared in its report that the disaster was “man-made.”
Bearing the lessons of the crisis deeply in mind, both the government and Tepco must urgently address the task of creating effective safety procedures to cope with unforeseen situations.
The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is struggling to contain highly radioactive water flowing out of the wrecked reactors.
Countermeasures as well as operations to decommission the reactors must steadily be implemented.