Fukushima bosses ordered to pay billions for failing to prevent nuclear disaster

Article by Adam Duckett

The court found that executives should have acted on assessments ahead of the disaster that a tsunami measuring higher than 15 m could strike the plant

FOUR former bosses of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been ordered by a Tokyo court to pay ¥13trn yen (US$94bn) in damages for failing to prevent disaster at the site in 2011.

The lawsuit was filed by shareholders in 2012 and is the first to find former executives of utility company Tepco liable for compensation. Kyodo News reports that the presiding judge said the utility's countermeasures for the tsunami "fundamentally lacked safety awareness and a sense of responsibility," ruling that the executives failed to perform their duties.

A huge earthquake knocked out power supply to the plant and triggered a tsunami thought to measure as high as 15 m. This easily washed over the 5.5 m seawalls designed to protect the plant, flooding key infrastructure, including the backup diesel generators that had kicked in to power the cooling of the reactors. Without this power, the three units operating at the plant melted down, the reactor pressure vessels were breached, and radioactive material was released into the environment.

The trial focused on whether the management had taken appropriate decisions on how to manage the risk of tsunami after a Tepco unit estimated in 2008 that a tsunami measuring up to 15.7 m could strike the plant based on a Government analysis published in 2002, Kyodo News reports. The former executives’ lawyers argued that the assessment lacked reliability. The court disagreed and said the Government’s assessment obliged the company to take measures. It ruled that the decision not to act was “extremely irrational and unforgivable”.

The four executives found guilty include former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, former President Masataka Shimizu, and former vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro. The sum they have been ordered to pay is well beyond their personal wealth, but they are expected to pay as much as their assets allow. A fifth defendant, former Managing Director Akio Komori, was found not liable for damages.

Tepco has declined to comment on the ruling. In a statement read to Agence France-Presse (AFP) by a Tepco spokesperson, the company said: “We again express our heartfelt apology to people in Fukushima and members of the society broadly for causing trouble and worry”.

A study published last year by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that it doesn’t expect the radiation released from Fukushima will lead to an increase in cancer rates. The only known radiation-related death caused by the meltdown was a plant worker exposed at the plant who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016. Despite these findings, there has been a huge mental toll inflicted on those close to the accident. A 2017 study by Masaharu Maeda at the Fukushima Medical University has found people suffering with symptoms of post-traumatic stress and enduring psychosocial problems including public and self-stigma brought on by concerns about the effects of radiation exposure.

Cleanup at Fukushima is a hugely complex engineering challenge that is set to take decades, and a controversial plan has been approved by the Government to flush treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean as storage runs out.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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