A Japanese court has ruled that Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operator TEPCO is responsible for the March 2011 nuclear accident that forced around 160,000 residents to evacuate their homes.
The district court in Chiba has ordered the utility to pay evacuees ¥376 million (US$3.3 million) in damages, considerably less than the the ¥2.8 billion sought by the 42 plaintiffs.
However, the same court has absolved the Japanese government of any responsibility in the multiple meltdowns and explosions at the nuclear facility, which was inundated by a megatsunami triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of northeast Japan on Mar. 11, 2011.
Judge Maseru Nakamoto of the district court in Chiba Prefecture, which is located just east of Tokyo, said the government "was able to foresee" but "may not have been able to avoid the accident" caused by the tsunami that smashed into the Fukushima plant around 45 minutes after the quake. Judge Nakamoto thus rejected demands by the plaintiffs that the the government also pay compensation.
As mentioned in Yoshida’s Dilemma, some 12,000 residents have filed around 30 class action lawsuits against TEPCO and the government. Each cases has revolved around whether the government and TEPCO, both responsible for disaster prevention measures, could possibly have predicted such a huge tsunami.
Yuichi Kaido, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said it was well-known that TEPCO knew of the possibility of a big tsunami hitting the region – the utility’s own research in 2010 had come to that conclusion, while paleo-tsunami research in the 1980s and then 2001 indicated similarly devastating historic tsunami – and once that became common knowledge it was likely that TEPCO would have to accept negligence liability, both from stockholders and public plaintiffs.
According to the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, TEPCO must automatically acknowledge strict liability, Kaido said. “This means that unless the accident was unavoidable, an act of God, then they must accept responsibility. At first TEPCO claimed it was an unavoidable accident, but even the government rejected that.”
In a seemingly contradictory bid to escape any blame, TEPCO at first pointed a finger at the government nuclear regulators for not forcing the utility to comply with new regulations that were introduced to further bolster defenses against natural phenomena, he added.
Indeed, TEPCO had also sought to evade responsibility in order to dodge a compensation lawsuit by company stockholders against TEPCO’s management. In a notice dated Jan. 13, 2012, the utility’s corporate auditor denied any lack of due diligence on TEPCO’s part that would warrant a liabilities claim.
The latest judgment in Chiba plus others that have preceded it would seem to suggest he is right, and also, for the first time gave concrete recognition to the plaintiffs for their losses of homes, communities and livelihoods.
The daily Mainichi newspaper commented that six and a half years after the disasters the reconstruction of communities affected by the nuclear accident is still a distant prospect, even where evacuation orders have been lifted. Despite the government being absolved of legal responsibility, and despite the relatively small payout ordered, the Chiba court ruling could be seen as "a breakthrough" as it far exceeds previous compensation levels, the newspaper said.
There is also evidence that the government may have to accept some responsibility. In March this year the Maebashi District Court in Gunma held both TEPCO and the Japanese government responsible for the accident and ordered both parties to pay ¥38.55m ($0.34m) to 62 plaintiffs.
"The Maebashi District Court recognized the responsibility of both the government and TEPCO, but this ended up feeling like a victory in name only, with no 'reward.' " said Katsuyoshi Suzuki, lead counsel of the plaintiffs' legal team in the Maebashi court case "But it can be said that the Chiba decision finally reaped 'rewards,' '' he added at a gathering in Chiba before the recent ruling.
The issue of responsibility has long been a contentious one, with some plaintiffs, such as Ruiko Mutoh of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Plaintiffs Association demanding that individuals also be held to account. In June this year, three former TEPCO executives went on trial, making them the only individuals to face a criminal lawsuit in connection with the 2011 disaster. While public prosecutors had previously refused to press charges against the men on two occasions due to what they believed was insufficient evidence and little chance of conviction, a judicial review panel made up of ordinary citizens ruled in 2015 that the trio should be put on trial.
TEPCO recently revealed that last week it received a ¥71.3bn ($640m) payout from the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommissioning Facilitation Corporation (NDF) as a funding grant to cover its compensation payouts.
The NDF is government-backed, meaning those funds, such as those used for cleanup operations to decommission the plant — including the building of a multibillion dollar ice wall to prevent contaminated water leaking from the plant — will come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
In an effort to recoup some of its own losses, TEPCO has enforced several electricity fee hikes.
Some of those losses have related to compensation handouts already made by the utility. The following is taken from the Mainichi:
The Maebashi District Court awarded a total of some 460 million yen in damages. However, based on "interim guidelines" set for TEPCO by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation in August 2011 to ensure swift payouts, it was decided that TEPCO had already paid about 420 million yen. As such, a total of only 38.55 million yen was awarded to 62 of the 137 plaintiffs. Complaints followed that voices of the evacuees decrying their psychological pain had not been heard.
However, in the Chiba case, TEPCO was ordered to pay 42 out of the 45 plaintiffs a total of roughly 376 million yen, even after some 650 million yen was judged as already having been paid by the company under the "interim guidelines." It was pointed out that the guidelines only set a minimum baseline for compensation, and upon considering the individual cases, the court granted the large damages award.
Stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operator TEPCO recently admitted that incorrectly configured monitoring equipment at the plant meant the groundwater flowing beneath the plant from the nearby Abukuma mountains may have become contaminated since April.
In order to mitigate a longstanding groundwater problem — that some experts, including a prime minister’s advisor, claim existed since the 1970s — TEPCO sunk numerous wells. According to the utility incorrect gauge settings were used to measure groundwater levels in six of those wells, which are situated near reactors 1 through 4, all of which were which were destroyed by the 2011 nuclear disasters.
The water gauges had been installed with the specific aim of keeping groundwater levels in the wells a meter higher than the contaminated water in the buildings. However, the faulty monitoring equipment meant groundwater readings were about 70 cm lower than what TEPCO was measuring, meaning contaminated water had been leaking into the ground for almost 6 months.
Between May 17 and 21, groundwater reportedly fell as much as 20 cm below the safety levels at least eight times.
Two reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture came into the news yesterday, with media sources proffering widely differing views regarding the question about their fitness for restart.
While the Asahi indicated that Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, had given “conditional approval” Sept. 13 to TEPCO’s application to resume operations of its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the Japan Times, quoting Japanese news wires, stated that the reactors would be staying idle — for now.
The NRA had “held off certifying the safety of two idle reactors” at the Niigata plant due to “a lack of debate on specific safety measures taken,” the article continued.
Reports seemed to be in agreement, however, that once more tests had been undertaken, the restarting of one of the world’s largest nuclear power complexes was not far away, even if the NRA still harbours grave concerns about TEPCO’s fitness to operate a nuclear plant, especially, says the Asahi, given the utility’s “tendency to put its balance sheet ahead of safety precautions.”
The utility’s poor record in that department notwithstanding, concerns about the Niigata plant go much deeper than managerial competence or ethics. It has long been held by some seismologists and other experts that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant sits on an active geological fault, although TEPCO and the Japanese government have long insisted the plant is seismically safe.
That claim was shown to be spurious a decade ago when on July 16, 2007, a powerful earthquake brought the nuclear plant to a standstill.
Of course, a nuclear plant coming to a standstill after a quake is no bad thing — emergency systems at nuclear plants are in place to ensure operations cease following a significant event, including natural disasters such as a magnitude 7 quake.
But it soon became obvious that the plant had experienced other potentially disastrous problems after the 2007 earthquake.
Aafter the quake, I headed straight up to Niigata, primarily to cover the disaster, which caused widespread devastation in Japan’s northeastern Chuetsu region, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless, but also to try and locate relatives of a friend who hailed from one of the worst-hit towns.
Even then there were rumours of a leak at the nuclear plant, and some residents who had been evacuated to temporary shelters said they were more fearful of a nuclear leak than the regular aftershocks that shook the area.
It was only a couple of years earlier that some of those residents -- backed by seismologists and other experts -- had tried to get the plant taken offline due to concerns of the active fault beneath the plant — a case that was summarily rejected.
As mentioned in my book, "Yoshida’s Dilemma", in the aftermath of the 2007 quake, when it came to light that hundreds of barrels of contaminated water had been toppled by the quake and that a door had been jammed preventing entry into the reactor control rooms, distrust in a system that had long seemed to side with the nuclear industry deepened.
“In 2007,” writes Temple University researcher Jeff Kingston in the Japan Times, “Mother Nature overruled the judge, raising questions about relying on old evaluations by institutions favoring nuclear energy in assessing site safety.”
Concerns surrounding the safety of the Niigata plant (and several others in Japan, for that matter), especially since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, have been at the centre of arguments by local politicians and residents who have been opposed to the its restart. Restarts of other nuclear plants in Japan face similar opposition, though the sheer size of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa — seven reactors with a capacity of 8,200 megawatts (enough to power 16 million households) all clustered together on one site — have added significant gravitas to those arguments.
Over the years, nuclear skeptics have been elected to power in Niigata Prefecture, largely due to concerns expressed by the world nuclear body, the IAEA, about the plant, but also due to the appearance of reports in 2002 regarding TEPCO’s falsification of data about some of its 17 reactors, in particular those in operation in Fukushima. In "Yoshida's Dilemma", I talk in length about these coverups, and the underhand way in which TEPCO exposed the identity of some of the whistleblowers who came forward to bring the utility's wrongdoing to light.
While slowly diminishing, public oppposition to nuclear restarts in Japan is still high, with one poll late last year showing 57 percent oppose recommencing operations of the nation’s nuclear fleet, though just under one-third support it.
That fleet had stood at 54 reactors, but has been significantly reduced since the 2011 disasters, placing further strain on the nation's electricity demands and a greater dependency on fossil fuels. A number of nuclear reactors are slated for decommissioning — including the six reactors at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility, the site of the 2011 accident, while others have been forced to close by the sheer weight of public opinion.
In Niigata, Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama has made efforts not toward preventing the reopening of the Kashiwazaki plant per se, but rather to ensure that prior to its restart all possible safety checks and thorough contingency plans in the event of an accident are researched and implemented. He has also called for a comprehensive review of studies looking at the impact of the Fukushima accident on public health, another issue discussed in Yoshida's Dilemma.
Some have seen this as nothing more than a delay tactic, but it would appear that despite the huge costs incurred from such checks and cleaning up the Fukushima crisis, TEPCO is hell-bent on getting the plant back up and running. Furthermore, it would seem from the recent announcement that pragmatics may eventually win the day. TEPCO has plowed ahead with its plans to get Niigata back up and running and the prefecture is slowly recognising the importance — often called “nuclear dependency” or “addiction” by critics — of the trillions of yen it has received over the decades in subsidies, not to mention tax revenues and thousands of jobs.
Two new international studies examining the impact of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident on the north Pacific Ocean have concluded that radioactive contamination levels in the waters and most marine life inhabiting them are now within acceptable safe levels.
An international team of researchers, headed by Daniel Madigan of Harvard University, tested large predators, including tuna, swordfish, and sharks in the waters off Japan, Hawaii, and California, and found no detectable levels of “Fukushima-derived” radioactive cesium 134 and 137.
“The cesium (134 and 137) isotopes are of particular concern because they were discharged in large quantities following the disaster, exhibit relatively long half-lives (2.1 and 30 years respectively), and tend to accumulate in the muscle tissues that people like to eat,” stated a blog post from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, whose Kevin Weng, an assistant professor from the department of fisheries Science, was a co-author of the study.
“Our work shows that radioactivity from the Fukushima disaster is very low in open-ocean vertebrates,” Weng commented in the blog.
Lead author Madigan, of Harvard University, concurred, saying that calculations of how much radioactive cesium a person would ingest by eating seafood from the north pacific “shows that impacts to human health are likely to be negligible.”
“For marketed fish to be restricted from trade, the cesium levels would have to be more than 1600 times higher than in any samples we measured,” he added.
Meanwhile, another study, headed by chemical oceanographer Jay Cullen of the University of Victoria in Canada, found radioactive contamination following the Fukushima disaster never actually reached unsafe levels in the north Pacific, either for marine life or human health.
The Fukushima nuclear plant experienced multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions after becoming inundated by megatsunami, which were triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake that led to a huge release of radioactive materials both into the air and sea resulting in the evacuation of 160,000 residents.
While Madigan and his team had found that contamination levels in the north Pacific had now returned to pre-Fukushima accident levels, Cullen claims that the levels are now lower than they have been for over 50 years.
Indeed, those contamination levels were about one-tenth of those found in the north Pacific in the late 1950s and ‘60s before the ban of nuclear weapons testing, his study claims.
"We're confident in saying that the levels that we see now in our part of the Pacific from Fukushima are below those levels that represent a significant health risk either to the Pacific Ocean or to human beings in Canada or the west coast of North America," said Cullen.
Surveys undertaken in Japan would tend to support these findings, though it is interesting that while those studies claim no detectable levels in marine life tested in the waters off Fukushima the Madigan-led international study found high levels of cesium in an olive ridley sea turtle.
Indeed there are others who have their doubts about whether the Pacific could justifiably be labelled as free of Fukushima-derived radiation. Just over a year ago, Ken Bessemer, a marine radiochemist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and director of the WHOI Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity, stated in an article for PBI that levels radiation levels in the Pacific, while not dangerously high, indicated that radioactive materials continued to leak into the Pacific.
unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean. "[T]he fact remains that this event is unprecedented in its total release of radioactive contamination into the ocean," Bessemer wrote. "... it is incorrect to say that Fukushima is under control when levels of radioactivity in the ocean indicate ongoing leaks, caused by groundwater flowing through the site and, we think, enhanced after storms."
Yesterday, I had an article published in The Japan Times about the mental health problems that are still being tackled by Fukushima nuclear plant workers and other early respondents to the disasters.
Titled "Battling nuclear demons: Mental health issues haunt those who were the first line of defense after 3/11" the feature article includes interviews with response workers, including a former employee of plant operator TEPCO, and researchers who have been involved in surveying the mental health of hundreds of plant engineers who were at the Fukushima No. 1 plant when it experienced multiple meltdowns and explosions in March 2011.
It also looks at the impact of the nuclear fallout on the health of hundreds of US sailors who are now in the process suing TEPCO.
In "Yoshida's Dilemma" I touched upon this subject, though it was only while research this story that I understood the full impact that the nuclear crisis had on some of the plant workers, some of whom have suffered far more intense and persistent symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Responses than others. It was also disturbing to hear some of the stories of the US sailors who have suffered a variety of ailments allegedly due to radiation exposure. Most prominent among them are mental health issues.
Over the next week I will include additional information about this issue on this blog, as well as an interview with one of the legal team representing the US sailors.