The court ruling last week that held Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings and the government responsible for failing to take steps to prevent the March 11, 2011, tsunami-caused meltdowns at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant should send a warning as authorities and the power industry move to restart nuclear reactors idled in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The Maebashi District Court decision is only the first ruling on at least 30 damage suits filed across the country by evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture. But the Abe administration and the power companies need to seriously take the message in the ruling — that they need to maximally consider the risk of a severe nuclear power plant accident given the enormous damage that could result from such a disaster.
The Maebashi court rejected the claims by Tepco and the national government that the giant tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake — which flooded the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s emergency power system, leading to the loss of its reactor core cooling function and causing meltdowns in three of its six reactors — was unforeseeable and that they cannot be held liable for inaction to prevent the disaster.
Pointing to a 2002 estimate by the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion that there was a 20 percent chance of a magnitude-8 earthquake rocking areas off Fukushima within 30 years — and Tepco’s own 2008 trial calculation based on the estimate that the No. 1 plant could be hit by a tsunami up to 15.7 meters high (almost the same height as the 15.5 meter-tsunami that hit on that day), the court determined that the power company was able to anticipate — and actually predicted — the tsunami risk but failed to take necessary action. It also accused the government of negligence to use its regulatory powers to get Tepco to take steps against possible tsunami damage. The argument by both Tepco and the government that the 2002 estimate was not scientifically established was refuted as the court called it a rational forecast that needed to be taken into account in assessing the tsunami-damage risk of a nuclear power plant.
Friday’s ruling was on a suit filed by 137 people in 45 families who evacuated from Fukushima to Gunma and other prefectures to escape from the radioactive fallout from the Tepco plant meltdowns, seeking a total of ¥1.5 billion in compensation from the power company and the government. The court awarded 62 of the plaintiffs a combined ¥38.55 million in damages, saying that their right to lead their lives in peace had been violated by the Tepco plant accident. There are reportedly about 30 similar lawsuits filed across Japan, and the total number of plaintiffs — about 12,000 — testify to the enormous damage to people’s lives from the nuclear disaster.
Six years after the March 2011 disasters, nearly 80,000 people from Fukushima Prefecture remain displaced from their homes. Reconstruction from the 2011 disasters continue to be slow in Fukushima compared with the two other severely affected prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate. Even as the government moves to lift evacuation orders in areas around the Tepco plant where the decontamination of polluted soil is deemed to have progressed, many of the former residents hesitate to return. Efforts to clean up the mess of the Fukushima No. 1 plant continue to be slow. The massive level of radiation inside the crippled reactor structures clouds prospects of work to dismantle the plant, which is expected to take decades.
Since the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to reactivate the nation’s nuclear power reactors, most of which were idled in the wake of the 2011 disaster. Reversing its Democratic Party of Japan-led predecessor’s policy of phasing out nuclear power, the administration now calls nuclear power a key “baseload” source of electricity supply. The government and the power industry say they have learned the lessons from the Tepco plant meltdowns. Power companies have gone through a screening by the newly-created Nuclear Regulation Authority for restarting their reactors under what the administration calls the world’s most stringent nuclear plant safety standards — updated since the Fukushima disaster to beef up resistance to natural disasters like quakes and tsunami, and defense against severe accidents. Both the government and the power industries emphasize the safety of the nuclear reactors that have thus resumed operations.
The government and the power industry should still heed the warning in the court ruling and consider whether they are sufficiently assessing the risks of a nuclear power plant disaster, which — as the case of Tepco’s Fukushima plant starkly reminds us — will bring massive consequences to the lives of so many people. Noting that Tepco could have averted the tsunami risk by taking easy steps, such as moving the emergency power system to higher grounds, the court severely criticized the power company for putting priority on economic interests over safety. Today, power companies seek to restart their nuclear reactors as they face the heavy financial cost of imported fuel to run their thermal power plants.
The court battles over the responsibility of Tepco and the government for the 2011 disaster will continue. But they should take the Maebashi court’s decision — that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was preventable — seriously, and avoid complacency in the regime to ensure safety in nuclear power plant operation.
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