Prosecutors on Sept. 9 decided not to indict any of the 40 or so individuals who had been targeted in criminal complaints and accusations for their role in the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011.
Residents of Fukushima Prefecture and citizens groups had filed the accusations in Tokyo and Fukushima district public prosecutors offices.
Among those targeted were Tsunehisa Katsumata, who was chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. when the accident occurred at the utility's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and Naoto Kan, who was the prime minister at the time.
Campaigners can appeal against the decision at court, which has the power to order the defendants be tried. Activists have said they intend to follow this route.
The huge tsunami, which was triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, crashed into Fukushima and swamped cooling systems, sparking meltdowns that spewed radiation over a wide area. No one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the radiation released by the meltdowns, but some Fukushima residents committed suicide citing concerns over radiation, while others died during evacuation.
Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes around the plant, with scientists warning some areas may have to be abandoned. A parliamentary report has said Fukushima was a man-made disaster caused by Japan's culture of "reflexive obedience" and not just by the tsunami that hit the plant.
About 14,700 people from groups across Japan, but mainly in Fukushima Prefecture, filed complaints against Kan and 41 other individuals for alleged professional negligence resulting in death and injury in connection with the nuclear disaster, which was triggered when the poorly protected power station lost all power after being hit by the quake and subsequent tsunami.
The focus was on whether prosecutors could find enough evidence to prove that the government and Tepco failed to take sufficient measures at the 40-year-old power plant after being notified of the risk of earthquakes and tsunami.
The government and Tepco were also accused of delaying the evacuation of residents around the plant, causing many to be exposed to radiation and leading to the deaths of many bedridden hospital patients.
Noriko Abe is demanding answers over the death of her 98-year-old father-in-law who was forced to take a 230-kilometer bus trip lasting more than eight hours in the confusion following the Fukushima nuclear accident. Dozens of hospital patients died during the arduous evacuation process, which was hampered by poor communications, a lack of manpower and the sheer chaos in the aftermath of two natural disasters.
At least one medical worker said decisions made during the evacuation likely exacerbated the situation for the frail patients.
Abe and the families of three other patients at Futaba Hospital who died in the evacuation process filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court on June 10, seeking a total of about 130 million yen ($1.3 million) in compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The patients’ ages ranged from 62 to 98 when they died.
At 3:36 p.m. that day, the first hydrogen explosion rocked the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Officials of the central and Fukushima prefectural governments tried to pick up the pace of relocating patients in nearby hospitals. But the explosions hampered the evacuation of the remaining patients at Futaba Hospital.
A decision was made to take the second group of 34 patients--including the four--from Futaba Hospital to the Soso public health center in Minami-Soma, about 25 kilometers north of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, for radiation checks before transferring them to an evacuation center. But it wasn’t until the early morning of March 14 when the Self-Defense Forces rescued the 34 patients and used an SDF bus to take them to the Soso public health center.
“I could not do anything for them," said Kenji Sasahara, 47, who headed the Soso public health center when the patients arrived for radiation checks. “Their conditions were very bad so I should have asked that they be taken directly to the evacuation center.”
Sasahara said a number of patients were pale and in such serious condition they could not be removed from the SDF bus. Center workers entered the vehicle to conduct the radiation checks, which were completed in about 10 minutes. A plan was devised to transfer the patients to Iwaki Koyo Senior High School, about 46 kilometers south of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, on a bus chartered by the Fukushima prefectural government.
But to avoid approaching the stricken nuclear plant, the bus route went inland and covered a distance of 230 kilometers.
Survivors of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident expressed disappointment and anger at the announcement Sept. 9 by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office that it will not seek to indict any high-ranking government or Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials connected with the meltdown.
Hiroyuki Kawai, the lead lawyer for a group of about 15,000 disaster victims and others who submitted criminal complaints against officials in the government and TEPCO, the plant operator, criticized the decision. "How can they say they conducted a thorough investigation when they did not carry out any raids on relevant offices?" Kawai asked. The group was seeking professional negligence resulting in death and injury and other charges against 42 officials.
"From the very beginning, it was not an investigation seeking indictments, but rather, one conducted so no indictments would be handed down," the lawyer said. Journalist Soichiro Tawara also questioned the decision by prosecutors not to carry out raids on TEPCO offices to dig up evidence.
"As long as there is the possibility that new evidence could emerge, such raids should have been carried out and a decision should only have been made after all the evidence was examined," he said. "It cannot be claimed a thorough investigation was conducted."
Yasuyuki Takai, a lawyer who once worked as a prosecutor, explained the decision. He said there were high barriers to proving responsibility for the accident. He added that the problem lay in the Criminal Code that emphasizes punishing only individuals responsible for accidents.
"For cases like the Fukushima nuclear accident, priority should be given to prevention," Takai said. "A new structure is needed that would target companies as subject to punishment, which could be facilitated by granting immunity from criminal responsibility to individuals in a bid to dig up the truth."
Criticism was also directed at the Fukushima District Public Prosecutors Office, which had transferred the cases to the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office before the decision was made to not indict anyone.
Kawai said his group had wanted to submit a case to the Fukushima prosecution inquest panel so that residents of Fukushima could decide if the decision made by prosecutors was appropriate. He added that the group would submit a request to the Fukushima prosecution inquest panel seeking to overturn the decision to transfer the complaint to Tokyo prosecutors.
Govt, TEPCO still bear responsibility for roles in Fukushima catastrophe
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 behavior 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.”