Responding to the suffering from the nuclear crisis

A court ruling this week ordering the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. to pay compensation to Fukushima and Ibaraki residents over the March 2011 nuclear disaster underlines the need for both the government and political parties to more seriously tackle the continuing plight of the people whose lives have been disrupted by that catastrophe six years ago. Nuclear energy is among the key campaign issues for the Oct. 22 Lower House election, with some parties calling for a phaseout of nuclear power generation, reflecting lingering safety concerns sparked by the three reactor meltdowns at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant. Lawmakers and their parties need to come to grips with the lessons from the 2011 accident and the government’s responsibility for the safety of nuclear power.

The Fukushima District Court on Tuesday ordered the national government and Tepco to pay a total of ¥500 million in damages to some 2,900 out of the 3,800 plaintiffs seeking compensation for the 2011 disaster. Following a Maebashi District Court ruling in March and a Chiba District Court decision last month, the latest ruling represents the third court decision awarding more damages than are provided by Tepco under the government-set standards. It is also the second ruling following the Maebashi court decision holding the government liable for compensation as well as Tepco.

Unlike in the earlier two cases, most of the plaintiffs in the Fukushima lawsuit, the largest in a series of similar suits in terms of the number of claimants, stayed in their hometowns since their places of abode were outside the government-ordered evacuation zones. They argued that the nuclear fiasco violated their right to live an undisturbed life without having to worry about health damage from exposure to radiation. The disaster, they said, also disrupted human relationships in communities because residents living just outside the evacuation zones were given much lower compensation for their psychological distress than those just inside such zones — even though there’s little difference in the radiation dosage to which they were exposed.

More than 6½ years after the meltdowns at the Tepco plant, roughly 55,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture remain displaced after fleeing the radioactive fallout. Residents who stayed in their hometowns, like many of the plaintiffs in the latest suit, also suffer from fear of health damage or economic distress due to rumors that agricultural products from their areas are contaminated.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meanwhile continues to push for the restart of nuclear power plants idled in the wake of the 2011 disaster. Just last week, the Nuclear Regulation Authority gave the green light to restarting reactors 6 and 7 at Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture. Abe on Tuesday gave his first campaign speech for the Lower House election in the city of Fukushima, but he did not touch on the 2011 nuclear disaster.

A key point in the lawsuit was whether the government and Tepco were able to foresee the giant tsunami in the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake that flooded the Fukushima No. 1 plant, crippling its emergency power system for keeping the reactors cool. The Fukushima court determined that they were, given that a long-term assessment released by a government panel in 2002 — warning there was a 20 percent chance of a magnitude 8, tsunami-triggering quake occurring within 30 years in the Japanese trench in the Pacific, including the area off Fukushima — had been deemed credible among experts. The court said that the Fukushima No. 1 accident could have been averted if the government had ordered Tepco to take safety measures against such a risk, calling this inaction to exercise its regulatory powers unreasonable.

While negligence on the part of the government over the 2011 fiasco has been recognized in two court rulings, the government’s responsibility over the operation of nuclear power plants is left blurred as the Abe administration pushes for reactivating idled reactors without delving deep enough into the root causes of the Fukushima disaster. While the national government touts the post-Fukushima nuclear safety standards as the world’s most stringent, it is left in the hands of local host governments to consent to the power companies’ plans to restart their plants once they have cleared the NRA’s screening. But since nuclear power has been promoted for decades as a national policy, the national government should be responsible for ensuring safety of nuclear power plants and responding to crises in the event of major accidents.