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.