Japanese government held liable for first time for negligence in Fukushima
Court rules government should have used regulatory powers to force nuclear plant’s operator to take preventive measures
A court in Japan has ruled that negligence by the state contributed to the triple meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 and awarded significant damages to evacuees.
Although courts have awarded damages arising from the disaster in other cases, Friday’s ruling is the first time the government has been held liable.
The Maebashi district court near Tokyo awarded ¥38.55m (£270,000) to 137 people who were forced to evacuate their homes in the days after three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six reactors suffered a catastrophic meltdown, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Despite official claims that the size and destructive power of the quake and tsunami were impossible to foresee, the court said the nuclear meltdown could have been prevented.
The ruling said the government should have used its regulatory powers to force the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), who were also held liable, to take adequate preventive measures.
The plaintiffs – comprising forced and “voluntary” evacuees – claimed the government and Tepco could have predicted a tsunami more than 10 metres in height would one day hit the plant.
They based their claim on a 2002 report in which government experts estimated there was a one in five chance of a magnitude-8 earthquake occurring and triggering a powerful tsunami within the next 30 years.
At the time of the disaster, Japan’s nuclear regulator was severely criticised for its collusive ties with the nuclear industry, resulting in the formation of a new watchdog that has imposed stricter criteria for the restart of nuclear reactors that were shut down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
Tepco, which faces a ¥21.5tn bill for decommissioning the plant and compensating evacuees, said it would respond after studying the ruling.
The 137 plaintiffs, who are now living in several regions outside of Fukushima, were seeking a total of ¥1.5bn as compensation for emotional distress.
They said the meltdown and resulting evacuation had ruined their livelihoods and caused disruption to their families’ lives, adding that state compensation they had already received was insufficient.
Friday’s ruling is the first of 30 lawsuits to be brought by Fukushima evacuees. Six years after the disaster, tens of thousands of people are still living in nuclear limbo, and many say they will never be able to return home. A small number have moved back to communities where the government has lifted evacuation orders.
The ruling echoed the conclusion reached by an independent parliamentary investigation, which described the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown as a “man-made” disaster caused by poor regulation and collusion between the government, Tepco and the industry’s then watchdog, the nuclear and industrial safety agency.
The report, published in 2012, accused Tepco and the agency of failing to take adequate safety measures, despite evidence that the north-east coast of Japan was susceptible to powerful earthquakes and tsunamis.
“The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties,” the report said.
“They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘man-made’.”
Japan Court Rules Government to Blame for Fukushima
A court in Japan Friday ruled that Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) and the government are liable for negligence in a case involving compensation for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the first time the judiciary has ruled the state has liability, Japanese media reported.
The district court in Maebashi, north of Tokyo, ruled in favor of 137 evacuees seeking damages for the emotional distress of fleeing their homes as radiation spread from the meltdowns at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant after an earthquake and tsunami six years ago, The Mainichi newspaper and other media reported.
While courts have ruled in favor of plaintiffs and awarded damages arising from the disaster, it was the first time a court has recognized that the government was liable, the Mainichi said.
TEPCO has long been criticized for ignoring the threat posed by natural disasters to the Fukushima plant and both the company and government were lambasted for their handling of the crisis.
TEPCO said in a statement it would review the contents of the ruling before making a response.
In December, the government nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the disaster to 21.5 trillion yen ($187.7 billion), increasing pressure on TEPCO to step up reform and improve its performance.
In the world’s worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl in 1986, three reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima plant suffered meltdowns after a magnitude 9 earthquake in March 2011 triggered a tsunami that devastated a swathe of Japan’s northeastern coastline and killed more than 15,000 people.
An abandoned home in Futaba, Japan, one of the towns around the Fukushima plant. Nearly 160,000 people evacuated the area after the disaster in 2011.
TOKYO — The Japanese government and the electric utility that operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were negligent in not preventing the meltdowns in 2011 that forced thousands of people to flee the area, a district court in eastern Japan ruled on Friday.
It was the first time that a court determined that both the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, and the government bore responsibility for the nuclear disaster that followed a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The decision could influence dozens of similar lawsuits filed by close to 12,000 evacuated residents now living across the country.
According to Japanese news reports of the ruling by the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture, the court said that the disaster, considered the worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl in 1986, was “predictable” and that it was “possible to prevent the accident.”
The court ordered the government and Tepco to pay damages totaling 38 million yen, or about $335,000, to 62 residents who were evacuated from the towns around the Fukushima plant and who relocated to Gunma. Each was awarded a different amount, but the total worked out to an average of $5,400 a person.
In their lawsuit, 137 former residents had sued for damages of ¥11 million, about $97,000, per person, and the court awarded damages to half the plaintiffs. About half of them had left on government evacuation orders while the other half had decided to leave on their own. Each case was evaluated individually.
The court weighed whether Tepco and the government had paid adequate damages to the nearly 160,000 people who evacuated from the towns around Fukushima. About 90,000 people have returned or settled in other places, and Tepco has already paid about ¥7 trillion in compensation.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said that the central government and Tepco should have foreseen the possibility of a tsunami of the magnitude that hit the plant and that they should have done more to protect the plant.
The March 11, 2011, meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, which is on the eastern coast of Japan, occurred when 32-foot waves breached the power station’s protective sea walls, flooding buildings and destroying diesel-powered electricity generators that were designed to keep critical systems functioning in a blackout.
Tepco did not deny responsibility in a statement on Friday.
“We again apologize from the bottom of our hearts for giving great troubles and concerns to the residents of Fukushima and other people in society by causing the accident of the nuclear power station of our company,” Isao Ito, a spokesman, said. “Regarding today’s judgment given at the Maebashi local court today, we would like to consider how to respond to this after examining the content of the judgment.”
Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet minister to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told reporters that the government had yet to see the details of the ruling.
“The concerned ministries and agencies are going to thoroughly examine the content of the judgment and discuss how we will respond to it,” Mr. Suga said.
Analysts said the case appeared to set an important precedent.
“Tepco’s argument all along has basically been that everything it did before the accident had been approved by the government, while the government has claimed that Tepco failed to follow guidance,” said Azby Brown, director of the Future Design Institute at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology and a volunteer researcher with Safecast, an independent radiation-monitoring group.
“This suit seems to have concluded that the evidence shows they share culpability,” he said. “I expect the government and Tepco to appeal, and for this to drag on for years.”
Izutaro Managi, a lawyer representing another class-action lawsuit against the government and Tepco, said that the government had failed in its oversight responsibilities. He said the damages were “not big enough.”
Representatives of groups that have sued the government and Tepco for negligence said they were more interested in the principle of the case than the amount of compensation awarded.
“The money is not a problem,” said Koichi Muramatsu, 66, a former resident of Soma City in Fukushima and the secretary of a victims group representing 4,200 plaintiffs in the suit being handled by Mr. Managi. “Even if it’s ¥1,000 or ¥2,000, it’s fine. We just want the government to admit their responsibility. Our ultimate goal is to make the government admit their responsibility and remind them not to repeat the same accident.”
In a statement, Katsumasa Suzuki, the chief lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the ruling significant because it “legally reconfirmed that government regulation was inappropriate.”
But he said he was disappointed by the low total of the damages.
“It is largely questionable whether the mental distress the plaintiffs faced was adequately evaluated,” he said.
The March 2011 tsunami that crippled the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was foreshadowed almost 10 years earlier, but government interference meant the threat was not acted on, seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki has said.
Shimazaki said a July 2002 prediction by the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion stated an earthquake as big as one in 1896 that caused monster tsunami had a 20 percent chance of occurring somewhere near the Japan Trench within 30 years.
The trench lies in the Pacific and stretches off the Sanriku area in the Tohoku region to the Boso Peninsula off Chiba Prefecture.
The 1896 tsunami triggered by the temblor that struck off Sanriku killed some 22,000 people.
The prediction by the government panel covered areas including waters off Fukushima Prefecture, home to the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which suffered a triple reactor meltdown due to damage from the tsunami unleashed by the March 11, 2011, magnitude-9.0 earthquake that hit Fukushima and other parts in the Tohoku region.
“Compared with earthquakes that occur in active faults once in thousands of years, the probability (of 20 percent in 30 years) is surprisingly high and cannot be ignored,” Shimazaki, who played a central role in drawing up the long-term tsunami prediction and is now professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said.
However, he said that just before the release of a report on the prediction, the secretariat of the research headquarters added a paragraph stressing the uncertainty of the forecast.
“An official of the Cabinet Office responsible for anti-disaster measures insisted on having a different committee discuss long-term tsunami prediction,” he said. “This was something that had never happened before, and I felt pressure.” He added, “It was puzzling and frightening.”
Shimazaki said the Central Disaster Prevention Council (CDPC) of the Cabinet Office ended up making tsunami assumptions that were far removed from the prediction by the Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion.
The CDPC assumed that only the northern part of the Tohoku region would be hit by tsunami, based on the premise that a recurrence of the 1896 Sanriku earthquake would occur in the same place, explained Shimazaki.
Huge tsunami around the same location near the Japan Trench have occurred at intervals of hundreds of years, and only about 100 years have passed since the 1896 earthquake, he noted.
The CDPC, which is tasked with devising anti-disaster measures based on the government-affiliated research body’s long-term predictions, chose to focus on the low probability and turned its eyes away from waters off the southern part of the Tohoku region, including Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefecture, just south of Fukushima, Shimazaki said.
He admitted that it is difficult for seismologists to predict earthquakes and tsunami with perfect accuracy, saying that while temblors do take place repeatedly in the same area they occur in somewhat different locations.
But Shimazaki added, “We can make assumptions about the location, timing and size to some extent, within certain ranges.
“Such assumptions were made, but were not utilized for the Fukushima No. 1 plant,” he said.
Shimazaki, 70, has also served as chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Earthquake Prediction and acting chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority. At the NRA, he played a major role in the work to create the country’s stricter nuclear plant safety standards based on lessons from the Fukushima No. 1 disaster.
Last July, he appeared in court as a witness for plaintiffs suing the central government and Tepco over the nuclear disaster.
“A lot of people died in the quake and tsunami,” Shimazaki said. “I’m also responsible for failing to reduce the damage.”
Stressing that such a disaster that claimed so many lives must never be repeated, Shimazaki said, “We must find out why it happened, but the causes are not being pursued.”
“The mistakes will be repeated if nothing is done,” he said as he explained why he decided to speak in court.
He also said assumptions of tsunami occurring on the Sea of Japan side of the country, announced by a land ministry working group in 2014, were not sufficient.
“If a catastrophic disaster happens again, they might again claim that it was beyond their assumptions,” he said. “That can’t be permitted.”
Although five years have passed since the nuclear meltdowns, Shimazaki said he doubts anything has changed.
“I see lack of clarity and responsibility in committees of experts organized by the state,” he said.
“In the world of science, we can together look for facts and can reach agreement to a certain extent. That is not the case when the state is involved, and mistakes will be repeated if we are not aware of the difference.”
Science is used for decision-making by the state, but scientists do not challenge how this is done, he said.
“They have to say ‘no’ if they think something is wrong, but they are not doing this,” Shimazaki said, adding that the lack of clarity around responsibility remains in five years.