The risk of an earthquake causing critical damage to a nuclear power plant has been the subject of lawsuits filed by residents in various parts of Japan over the years, but to date none of these legal actions has led to the actual suspension of a plant.
Since the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis triggered on March 11, criticism is being directed at judges because of their tendency to side with the state and power companies.
The courts have been inclined to accept arguments that nuclear power plants are safe, citing the highly technical nature of atomic power generation. In light of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, however, critics say the judges should be held accountable for abandoning their responsibility to properly scrutinize such details.
The focal point of the debate is the degree to which judges are capable of deliberating on the complexities of nuclear power generation.
In a 1992 ruling, the Supreme Court presented a framework on how courts may approach cases involving nuclear plants, noting the reasonableness of following expert opinion.
“Should there be a serious error in judgment made by experts on whom the state depended, then the issuing by the state of a permit for construction (of a nuclear plant) shall be deemed illegal,” the court ruled.
The ruling threw out a lawsuit by residents who wanted the central government to pull a permit for a Shikoku Electric Power Co. reactor project in Ikata, Ehime Prefecture.
In 2006, the Kanazawa District Court made a rare decisionto call for the shutdown of the No. 2 reactor at Hokuriku Electric Power Co.’s Shika nuclear power plant in Ishikawa Prefecture. “There is a concrete risk of residents being exposed to radiation in an earthquake that is beyond the assumed level,” the court of first instance said.
In an appellate ruling, however, those risks were dismissed and the decision reversed. Last year, the Supreme Court nixed an appeal against this decision.
Just after a high court issued a ruling on a lawsuit involving the No. 1 reactor of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa station in Niigata Prefecture, a magnitude 6.8 quake struck in 2007 off the coast of the prefecture, exceeding the design specifications of the plant and causing some — though not critical — damage.
The Supreme Court eventually affirmed the residents’ defeat, saying, “The earthquake does not affect this decision” in view of what had been deliberated, the history of the lawsuit and other issues.
Perhaps the greatest amount of public attention is being focused on Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka nuclear plant in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture. The power plant was built in a region where a major quake is anticipated, given the history of cyclical quakes in the Pacific off the coast of the region.
Residents sued to suspend reactor operations at the plant.
In 2007, however, the plaintiffs lost when the Shizuoka District Court’s ruling recognized the central government’s antiquake guidelines and accepted the utility’s arguments.
The court described the company’s seismic impact projection for its biggest earthquake scenario as “appropriate” and said the plant’s design “ensures ample margin for safety.”
Yoshika Shiratori, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which is now pending in the Tokyo High Court, said: “So far, residents and scientists have pointed out the risks, but courts have never paid serious attention. The judicial branch bears a great responsibility for not preventing the accident in Fukushima.”
Deliberations in the case could be protracted. “The accident re-created what we argued in court in Shizuoka. A ruling should be issued immediately to halt operations” at the Hamaoka plant, he said.