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Tepco again ordered to pay damages over nuclear disaster but claims against state dismissed

Kyodo

Chiba District Court on Friday ordered Tokyo Electric to pay damages over the Fukushima nuclear disaster but dismissed claims against the state.

It is the second time a court has ruled against Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. in a suit filed by residents forced to abandon their homes when three reactor cores melted following the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which knocked out their cooling systems.

The triple meltdown spewed massive amounts of radioactive material into the air.

The Chiba District Court awarded ¥376 million to 42 of the 45 plaintiffs who fled Fukushima Prefecture for Chiba Prefecture and filed the suit in March 2013, seeking around ¥2.8 billion in damages from the government and Tepco.

The focal point of the Chiba case was whether the government and Tepco were able to foresee the huge tsunami that hit the seaside plant on March 11, 2011, and take preventive measures beforehand. Conflicting claims were made by the parties regarding the government’s long-term earthquake assessment, which was made public in 2002.

The assessment, made by the earthquake research promotion unit, predicted a 20 percent chance of a magnitude 8 earthquake occurring along the Japan Trench in the Pacific Ocean, including the area off Fukushima, within 30 years.

Based on the assessment, the plaintiffs argued that, with the plant standing on ground roughly 10 meters above sea level, a tsunami higher than that level striking the plant could have been predicted.

They claimed the disaster was therefore preventable by placing emergency generators on higher ground, and that the government should have made Tepco take such measures by exercising its regulatory powers.

The government and Tepco, for their part, claimed the assessment was not established knowledge, and that even if they had foreseen a tsunami higher than the elevation of the plant and taken measures against it, they cannot be held liable as the actual tsunami was much higher, at around 15.5 meters.

The government also argued that it obtained regulatory powers to force Tepco to take anti-flooding measures only after a legislative change following the disaster.

In Friday’s ruling, the court found the state not liable, saying that while the government indeed has such powers, not exercising them was not too unreasonable.

The Chiba case is among around 30 similar lawsuits brought by groups of people forced to evacuate by the nuclear disaster.

In March, the Maebashi District Court in Gunma recognized negligence on the part of not just Tepco, but also the government, saying they were able to foresee a tsunami high enough to inundate the plant.

At the time, it was the first such ruling issued among around 30 similar suits and the first to rule in favor of plaintiffs.

The Maebashi court acknowledged the state had regulatory authority over Tepco even before 3/11, noting that “failing to exercise it is strikingly irrational and illegal.”

But because the court awarded to 62 of 137 plaintiffs a total of ¥38.55 million in damages — far less than the ¥1.5 billion sought in total — many of the plaintiffs have appealed the district court decision.

In the Chiba suit, the 45 plaintiffs, including four who evacuated voluntarily, sought ¥20 million each in compensation for their evacuations and the loss of their hometowns, jobs and personal relationships because their lives were uprooted.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, causing multiple meltdowns and hydrogen blasts at the nuclear plant.

As of the end of August 2017, around 55,000 people who lived in Fukushima Prefecture at the time of the disaster remained at the locations where they evacuated, both within and outside the prefecture.