Damages for the nuclear disaster

Awarding damages to people who fled their homes following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Chiba District Court ruled late last month that the plaintiffs are entitled to compensation for the loss of their hometowns in the catastrophe — the first ruling of its kind.

That should be good news for people who had to evacuate their hometowns in the nuclear fiasco. The Chiba court decision was only the second ruling to be handed down in a series of nearly 30 damages suits filed with 20 courts across the nation, involving more than 12,000 plaintiffs, against Tokyo Electric Power Holdings Co. and the government.

However, the ruling marked a setback from another decision handed down by the Maebashi District Court in March — in that it spared the national government of its responsibility for damages, saying it was not guilty of serious negligence.

The Chiba suit had been filed by 45 people who evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture to Ibaraki Prefecture, demanding a total of ¥2.8 billion in damages for their plight. The court awarded a combined ¥376 million to 42 people, including four who evacuated voluntarily. The court determined that damages paid for the plaintiffs’ psychological suffering are not sufficient to cover the loss of the foundation of their lives, such as their hometown communities, which helped them establish and develop their individuality. It thus awarded compensation for the evacuees’ loss of their hometowns — beyond the scope of damages being paid by Tepco to evacuees in general in accordance with government-set standards.

The focal point in the series of lawsuits is whether the government and Tepco were able to foresee the massive tsunami that hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011 — in the Great East Japan Earthquake — and caused core meltdowns in three of its reactors. The Chiba court determined that on the basis of long-term earthquake assessments released in 2002 by the government’s quake research unit, the government and Tepco should have been able — by 2006 at the latest — to foresee that a large tsunami higher than the plant site, some 10 meters above sea level, would strike the plant.

What’s hard to swallow is the court’s subsequent logic. The ruling acknowledged that the government had the regulatory power to order Tepco to take action to prevent loss of the power supply to the reactors in case it was flooded by a tsunami, but said its failure to exercise that authority was not “extremely irrational” and did not constitute a violation of the law. Since the government and Tepco had only limited funding and human resources, it was impossible for them to take steps to cope with all the risks, the court said, adding that even if they had taken such measures, it may have been impossible to prevent the disaster given the size of the tsunami that actually hit the plant.

As for Tepco’s responsibility, the court said that since the company was planning to take necessary measures on the basis of an experts’ tsunami risk assessment, which was due out in 2012, Tepco cannot be blamed for entirely ignoring the need for anti-tsunami action. The ruling thus concluded that Tepco did not commit such serious negligence as to require a significant increase in damages given to the plaintiffs.

In its March ruling, the Maebashi District Court said the government’s failure to exercise its regulatory power was irrational because it was clear that Tepco would not voluntarily take necessary steps — and determined that the government could have prevented the disaster. The Maebashi ruling said that Tepco, while it should have given priority to safety at the nuclear plant in weighing its anti-tsunami measures, instead put economic considerations first and thus deserves strong censure. It pointed out that the company could have easily prevented the catastrophe by moving emergency power sources to a higher location. The Chiba court decision could mislead the government and power companies to think that they would be allowed to delay measures to ensure safety of nuclear power plants out of financial considerations.

The plaintiffs in the Maebashi case have appealed the ruling on the grounds that the damages awarded — ¥38.55 million for 62 of the 137 plaintiffs — were too small. Those in the Chiba case are also expected to appeal to a higher court. The whole series of pending lawsuits will likely take a long time before they’re concluded. The plaintiffs are commonly unhappy about the level of compensation provided under the government-set standards. The Chiba court ruling recognizes that the damages already provided do not fully cover the hardships of the evacuees. The government should not wait for court decisions on all the suits to consider reviewing its damages standard and expand support for the evacuees.