TOKYO—A Tokyo court ordered four former executives of Tokyo Electric Power Holdings Inc. to pay the company the equivalent of $97 billion, finding they were negligent by failing to prevent nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The plaintiffs in the civil suit, who were shareholders in the company, acknowledged that the executives could never pay such a sum but called the ruling a symbolic victory. Lawyers for the defendants declined to comment.
The executives have said they couldn’t have foreseen the giant tsunami that knocked out power at the plant, leading to melted nuclear fuel and radiation emissions that made areas nearby uninhabitable for years. Three of those involved in Wednesday’s decision were found not guilty at a criminal trial in 2019.
The civil suit was filed by 48 Tepco shareholders in 2012 and sought to force the executives to personally pay back the company for costs incurred through the executives’ alleged negligence. Wednesday’s ruling was the first to find former Tepco executives responsible for the nuclear disaster, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
The plaintiffs said five former Tepco executives, including former Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, should pay the utility 22 trillion yen, equivalent to $160 billion. That is an estimate of the total costs related to the nuclear accident calculated by a government committee.
The court found four of the five, including Mr. Katsumata, could have prevented the accident and said they should pay the utility ¥13.321 trillion, or $97 billion, the amount that the court found had actually been spent so far.
The court said that the four defendants “fundamentally lacked a sense of responsibility and awareness of safety,” ignored unwelcome scientific findings and mainly considered “how they could preserve the status quo as much as possible,” according to a summary of the ruling. The summary of the ruling didn’t say how much, if anything, the defendants would have to pay assuming they couldn’t pay the full amount.
Court cases, including the one decided Wednesday, have focused on studies presented to Tepco executives several years before the accident that pointed to the risk of a major tsunami hitting the nuclear plant on Japan’s Pacific coast. Executives have said the information wasn’t sufficient to act upon.
Hiroyuki Kawai, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the size of the penalty, while impossible for the individuals to pay, would send a message of deterrence. “I think it would greatly affect the future resumption of nuclear plants’ operation,” he said.
Plaintiff Yui Kimura, 70 years old, said she borrowed money to buy 100 Tepco shares for the equivalent of several thousand dollars and lost money when the nuclear plant was hit by the accident. “I am fully satisfied” with the verdict, she said.
Write to Chieko Tsuneoka at chieko.Tsuneoka@dowjones.com