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Evacuees from nuclear disaster await Supreme Court ruling

Sugie Tanji, left, and her husband, Mikio, in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, look through documents on June 1.

June 14, 2022

Tetsuya Omaru initially thought he could return to his home in Fukushima Prefecture “in a week” after the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant forced him to flee.

However, the 92-year-old former farmer is still far from home 11 years after the nuclear disaster. 

His home in Namie, a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, is located about 11 kilometers from the plant, nestled in the mountains.

Omaru was born to a farming family dating back to more than 300 years. He used to grow rice and raised silkworms before he was displaced.

He knew all the people in his community of about 30 households. They were close and worked together to stage traditional festivals.

Omaru’s life, however, has been uprooted and upended since the triple meltdown in March 2011. 

The nuclear disaster occurred when the plant lost power and thus could not cool its reactors after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck and a tsunami swamped the plant. 

Omaru is now awaiting a weighty decision from the country’s top court, due on June 17, regarding a lawsuit he and other plaintiffs filed at the Chiba District Court.

They are demanding the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the government answer for the triple meltdown.

“TEPCO and the government had asserted over the years that nuclear power plants are safe,” Omaru said. “I strongly hope the Supreme Court will recognize the government’s responsibility for redress.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling will be applied to three other similar lawsuits.

In handing down the ruling, the top court will look at whether the government carried out appropriate regulatory oversight on the nuclear industry.

One focus was whether a 2002 government report on potential earthquakes in the future was credible enough to foresee a possible tsunami resulting from a powerful earthquake.

Another focus is whether TEPCO could have avoided the disaster if appropriate measures had been taken to safeguard against tsunami.

The lawsuits are among the first to be filed by victims of the nuclear disaster and part of about 30 legal actions being taken across the nation. The top court’s decision is likely to influence the course of the other court battles.

The top court handed down in March a verdict ordering TEPCO to pay a combined 1.4 billion yen ($10.4 million) to the plaintiffs of the four lawsuits.

NO LONGER ABLE TO FARM

After moving around in Fukushima Prefecture, Omaru initially took refuge in his oldest daughter’s house in Chiba Prefecture.

But it was impossible for him to work in the field, his passion, under such circumstances. He suffered a stroke in 2012.

He is now living with his second daughter in Yokohama. He had surgery for esophageal cancer in 2021.

Omaru decided to join a group of victims suing TEPCO and the government out of resentment that he has been deprived of his livelihood and hometown.

In its 2017 decision, the Chiba District Court denied the government’s responsibility.

The Tokyo High Court overturned it in 2021, however.

The high court’s decision came after three judges and other court officials traveled to inspect Omaru’s home in the so-called “difficult-to-return” zone due to radiation levels estimated at more than 50 millisieverts a year.

His house was ruined by wild boars and overgrown grass.

“If possible, I want to go back to my home in Namie to live while I am still alive,” Omaru said. “It is where I was born and grew up.”

That appears to be unlikely, however, as the government does not plan on cleaning up the area encompassing his community.

TEARS FROM THE VICTIMS

Among others awaiting the top court ruling are Sugie Tanji and her husband, Mikio, who brought their case to the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture.

The couple fled from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, though their home, about 40 km from the plant, was not covered by the government’s evacuation order for communities with an estimated annual reading of 20 millisieverts.

Though the district court recognized the government’s responsibility in a ruling in 2017, it was overturned by the Tokyo High Court in 2021.

In hearings at the high court, the government defended its policy of not providing redress to so-called “voluntary evacuees” such as the Tanji family.

Giving them compensation, said the government, “would amount to offending the feelings of residents who stayed, and it would be an inappropriate assessment of the nation’s land.”

Tanji, 65, said she was appalled by the statement, describing it as an attempt to divide victims.

“It is TEPCO and the government that polluted the land,” she said. “But they are trying to pass the buck.”

Tanji and her husband were running a shop repairing word processors in Iwaki when the nuclear accident unfolded.

They temporarily evacuated to an acquaintance’s house in the prefecture.

When they returned to the shop a half month later, they found piles of faxes from their customers.

Most contained kind words offering encouragement, but a few were negative messages, such as one that read: “You do not have to return my machine as I fear it is contaminated with radiation.”

“When we read them, we felt we could no longer run our shop there,” Tanji said of their decision to leave Iwaki for good.

They moved to Maebashi in July 2011–a city they picked after drawing circles on a map of Japan to see what places were outside a 100-km radius of every nuclear facility across the country. Maebashi was one they considered to be far enough away.

But the tragedies continued. Mikio’s mother, who stayed in Fukushima, died without being reunited with the couple after the accident. A woman who was close to the couple committed suicide.

Tanji strongly hopes the court finalizes the government’s responsibility, to prevent another nuclear disaster.

“Tears that victims have shed, as well as the lives and livelihoods lost due to the disaster, should never be wasted,” she said.

https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14644610

June 18, 2022 - Posted by | Fuk 2022 | , ,

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