National / Crime & Legal | FOCUS

Nine years on, Fukushima nuclear plant lawsuits await high court rulings

JIJI

High courts in Japan have been hearing a number of damages claims filed by those who evacuated due to the unprecedented nuclear accident in Fukushima Prefecture nine years ago.

Attention is on how the courts will assess the liability of the government, which has flatly denied responsibility over the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The plant suffered meltdowns in three of its reactors after being hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, forcing many residents to evacuate.

So far, six of 10 district courts have found the government responsible for the nuclear accident, while the other four did not recognize government liability.

The key issues are whether the government was able to predict the huge tsunami and was able to avert the catastrophe by taking preventive measures.

The plaintiffs claim that the government could have prevented the accident if it had urged Tepco to take measures by exercising its regulatory power, based on its long-term earthquake prediction issued in 2002.

All of the 10 district courts recognized Tepco’s responsibility to pay damages to the plaintiffs based on a law obliging a plant operator to pay damages over a nuclear accident, regardless of whether it was negligent or not.

The Maebashi District Court and five others found that the long-term earthquake assessment was reliable, saying it was a reasonable prediction that should have been taken into account when considering tsunami countermeasures.

The courts thus recognized the government’s responsibility, finding that it acted illegally by neglecting to order Tepco to take preventive measures — such as relocating power sources to a higher location at the plant.

By contrast, two separate rulings issued by the Chiba District Court did not support the claim of government responsibility, reaching verdicts that the nuclear accident could not have been avoided even if preventive measures had been taken.

Still, all district court rulings found that the government had been able to foresee the possibility of a huge tsunami hitting the plant.

“Based on the premise that a nuclear plant should be protected at any cost, the government should exercise its regulatory power soon after it predicts a tsunami,” said Izutaro Managi, a lawyer involved in a case filed with the Fukushima District Court.

The Fukushima case involves some 3,800 plaintiffs — the largest number among suits filed against Tepco and the government over the nuclear accident.

The first high court ruling is expected later this year.

“If high courts issue rulings in succession recognizing state responsibility over the nuclear accident, the Japanese government as a perpetrator should act to address damages from the accident,” Managi said.

Specifically, he called on the government to review its compensation guidelines, which include measures such as monthly payments of ¥100,000 to each resident in evacuation zones.

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