On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake cracked through the ocean floor under the Pacific and sent a tsunami barreling toward the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The electrical utility that operated the plant knew there was a chance it couldn’t withstand a 30-foot wave, and this one topped its seawalls and caused the second-largest nuclear disaster in history. Forty-four people died during the evacuation of a hospital, and a total of 165,000 were evacuated from the area surrounding the plant.
Three executives at the utility were accused of criminal negligence for failing to take adequate precautions to protect the plant from a tsunami. Despite knowing their plant might not withstand big waves, they left it as it was.
Now, years after the fact, all three of them are off the hook.
A Japanese court found the head of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Tsunehisa Katsumata, along with two other former executives not guilty of criminal professional negligence.
The verdict means it’s unlikely anyone will be convicted on charges surrounding one of the worst nuclear disasters ever, one that prompted an international reckoning with the dangers of nuclear power plants.
While some of the dead were patients evacuated from a nearby hospital, none of those deaths was attributed to radiation. But the prosecution tried to argue, ultimately without success, that the deaths were caused by poor planning on the part of the executives. The executives, for their part, shot back that the damage caused by the disaster was unprecedented, and there was no way for them to anticipate the scale of the devastation caused by the twin threats of a tsunami and an earthquake.
But the company’s own scientists, in the lead-up to the disaster, had warned that the plant was in a tsunami-prone area, and that the plant might not be adequately prepared to weather one, Reuters reported.
The judge sided with the executives. “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 judge said, according to the Washington Post.
After the meltdown, Germany shifted its power supply away from nuclear energy. Japan shut down all of its nuclear plants and imposed new safety rules. But those plants are now starting to reopen; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made getting nuclear reactors back online a national priority.
Still, years after the disaster, there are ghost towns in the areas surrounding the plant, still submerged in radiation. Many who once lived there have largely abandoned hope of ever returning. The Japanese government estimated in 2016 that it will cost more than $200 billion to fully decommission the reactor and clean up the radiation that’s been left behind.
Some of the victims of the nuclear disaster were hoping that someone would be held accountable for the plant’s meltdown.
“This is only the beginning of a major battle,” Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing more than 5,700 Fukushima residents who fled after the meltdown, according to the Guardian. “Our ultimate goal is to eradicate dangerous nuclear plants that have thrown many residents into despair.”
Cover: Wheelchairs, plastic bottles, towels, buckets and paper plates remain scattered on the corridor of Futaba Hospital, where is inside the exclusion zone of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant ahead of the 8th anniversary of the disaster on March 03, 2019 in Futaba, Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun/The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)