A Tokyo court on Wednesday ordered former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. to pay the utility some 13 trillion yen ($95 billion) in total damages for failing to prevent the 2011 crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The ruling in favor of shareholders who filed the lawsuit in 2012 is the first to find former TEPCO executives liable for compensation after the nuclear plant in northeastern Japan caused one of the worst nuclear disasters in history triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The Tokyo District Court's Presiding Judge Yoshihide Asakura 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.
If tsunami resilience work had been conducted to prevent flooding of main structures, TEPCO could have prevented the disaster, in which power was lost and reactor cooling functions were crippled, causing reactor meltdowns, according to the ruling.
Among five defendants -- former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, former vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, former President Masataka Shimizu and former Managing Director Akio Komori -- the court found all but Komori liable to pay the damages.
"It's a historic verdict that deserves lasting praise," Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing the shareholders, said in a press conference. "It showed company executives have such a heavy responsibility and could even be held liable for damages if an accident occurs."
The damages of over 13 trillion yen are likely be the largest ever in a civil lawsuit in Japan, though it would be realistically difficult for the company to collect them from the former executives.
Nearly 50 shareholders had sought a total of around 22 trillion yen ($160 billion) in damages.
TEPCO declined to comment on the ruling, saying it will refrain from responding to matters related to individual lawsuits.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno reiterated the government's policy to continue to use nuclear energy despite the disaster, saying, "We will make safety our top priority and make utmost efforts to resolve the Japanese people's concerns."
The focal point of the trial was whether the management's decisions on tsunami countermeasures were appropriate after a TEPCO unit estimated in 2008 that a tsunami of up to 15.7 meters could hit the plant based on the government's long-term earthquake assessment made public in 2002.
The shareholders said the government's evaluation was the "best scientific assessment," but the management postponed taking preventive steps, such as installing a seawall.
The former executives' lawyers said the assessment lacked reliability and the accident occurred when the management was asking a civil engineering association to study whether the utility should incorporate the evaluation into its countermeasures.
The court judged that the government's assessment was reliable enough to oblige the company to take measures against tsunami. "It is extremely irrational and unforgivable" to put off a decision to act on the government study, the ruling said.
In a criminal trial in 2019, defendants were acquitted on the grounds they could not foresee a giant tsunami triggering a nuclear disaster.
Yukie Yoshida, 46, who was forced to evacuate her home near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, said, "My life won't change even if the damages are paid to TEPCO," adding, "I just want to go back to my home as soon as possible."
More than 15,000 people lost their lives after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami caused widespread damage in the country's northeast and triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear complex.
Some 38,000 people still remain displaced as of March due mainly to the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
There is still a no-go zone near the Fukushima plant where decommissioning work is scheduled to continue until sometime between 2041 and 2051.