Tsunehisa Katsumata, the former chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Company, arriving at Tokyo District Court on Thursday. He and two other former executives were acquitted of criminal negligence. Kazuhiro Nogi-Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Japanese court handed down a not guilty verdict to three former Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives on Thursday over the 2011 nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima plant.

At the Tokyo District Court, the three – former Chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, former Vice Presidents, Ichiro Takekuro, and Sakae Muto – were acquitted on charges of failing to take measures against tsunamis prior to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The legal team for Fukushima disaster victims is expected to appeal to the High Court.

The defence team argued it was impossible to predict the massive flood wave that struck the facilities, while prosecutors demanded five-year prison terms for the three.

The team had argued that the plant operators could have prevented the disaster had they implemented anti-tsunami measures.

The plant suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors, spewing radioactive material into the air, after it was hit by a magnitude-9 earthquake and a tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The twin disasters killed about 18,400 people in north-eastern Japan.

The nuclear emergency forced hundreds of thousands of residents to leave their homes.

Eight and a half years later, tens of thousands of people are still unable to return home due to radiation contamination.

“We cannot understand this.

“We have been deprived of our homes and hometowns,’’ one Fukushima citizen said in front of the court, in an initial reaction.

To decommission the plant would take four decades, the operator said.

The Japan Centre for Economic Research estimated this year that clean-up costs for the meltdowns could reach up to 80 trillion yen ($740 billion).

Yet, no officials from the central government or Tokyo Electric have been found criminally responsible for the world’s worst disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Notwithstanding Thursday’s verdict, the government and TEPCO – the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station – are still facing a number of civil lawsuits brought by Fukushima residents.

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