by Will Davis
In a move that has relieved some observers but angered others, a Tokyo District court has found three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) not guilty on the charges of not having prepared the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant against the tsunami that occurred in 2011.
Found not guilty were former TEPCO Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata; former TEPCO Vice President Sakae Muto; and former TEPCO Vice President Ichiro Takekuro. The three had, prior to this present trial, endured two different attempts to indict them personally for the same charges in 2013 and 2015 when in each instance the Tokyo prosecutors’ office declined to take action against them following requests for indictment from two citizens’ panels. The third action by a citizens’ panel, in early 2016, carried with it a mandate for prosecution which was put into action immediately.
Prior to the accident, TEPCO had been notified by at least one subsidiary company as well as various other outside groups that the threat of tsunami on the Eastern coast of Japan was greater than assumed, and that there was threat of a tsunami higher than had been prepared for – roughly, 30 feet. TEPCO elected not to alter the preparations at the site, feeling that the protection was adequate; it is on these grounds that the continued re-attempts at prosecution have occurred.
Much was made at the time and since about the placement of the emergency diesels low in the plants, at the level of bedrock – causing them to be flooded and useless when the plant was inundated with water (and a great deal of debris) from the tsunami. The fact is that the diesels were mandated by Japan’s regulator to be mounted on bedrock for earthquake protection when the plant was built; roof mounted, “air cooled” diesels were added to the plants later. It was one such diesel that allowed Units 5 and 6 at Fukushima Daiichi to survive, albeit not without extreme effort on the part of operators at those two more northerly units. Regardless, such design features are more a result of regulation than they are a result of decisions made by men in charge of a plant they did not construct – and for which they, as is now apparent, cannot be held responsible.
Still, there was much worry (and in many places, hope) that the three would be found criminally negligent for not having increased the plant’s protection. However, “It would be impossible to operate a nuclear power plant if operators were obliged to predict every possibility about a tsunami and take necessary measures,” wrote District Court Presiding Judge Kenichi Nagafuchi in the decision. This decision then sets the precedent, it would seem, that people are not responsible for the effects of natural disasters so long as reasonable precautions had been taken against such events. At Fukushima Daiichi, such precautions – approved by the regulator at the time, NISA – were taken.
As for TEPCO itself, the future is murky. The company has finally been forced to concede the loss of its other nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture, whose government had already stated many times would never permit restart of any reactor on its land. The company has also admitted that it may well have to decommission one or more of the older set of nuclear units at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (Units 1 through 5) while it continuously prepares to try to restart the two very modern ABWR units at that site (Units 6 and 7), possibly with the assistance of a consortium of utilities and nuclear vendors. TEPCO still expects to be working on Fukushima Daiichi’s decommissioning for another three or four decades; it has widely been assumed that profitability of TEPCO in the future then hinges on the restart of, and revenue from, some of its remaining nuclear units on the West coast at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. Today’s court decision clears away a bit of the question about who or what entities are culpable in the events of March 2011, but does nothing to assure TEPCO’s future as a stand-alone, for profit entity.
Will Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he used to write his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar. His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.