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With appeal of Tepco acquittal, thousands hit by Fukushima nuclear disaster seek closure

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Ruiko Muto, the 66-year-old leader of the class action lawsuit against former Tepco executives, speaks at Utsunomiya University in Tochigi Prefecture on July 21.
Oct 11, 2019
Plaintiffs have appealed a ruling handed down by the Tokyo District Court in mid-September that found three former Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives not guilty of professional negligence. A class action lawsuit against the executives claimed they had failed to apply the proper safety measures to prevent the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, despite being aware of the devastating effect tsunami would have.
The disaster upended daily life as local residents knew it and tore apart the social fabric of societies and communities around the area. Eight and a half years on, the victims are still grappling with the loss of their homes, and are turning to the courts for answers and closure.
 
Ruiko Muto, the 66-year-old leader of the class action lawsuit against former Tepco executives, has tirelessly conducted talks around the country since the nuclear disaster in 2011, which saw three of the six core reactors of the Fukushima No. 1 power plant go into meltdown after massive tsunami struck the facility.
“Grassroots efforts are what pushes forward the social change we need to see,” she said, adding, “awareness spreads only when each individual starts to think about the issue at hand.”
Muto has campaigned for the end of nuclear power for over 30 years. Seeing the devastating effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union catapulted her into the anti-nuclear movement.
On that fateful day in the Tohoku region in March 2011, a day after a massive earthquake hit Japan, she drew parallels with what had happened in Chernobyl over 30 years ago to what was happening in her hometown.
“I thought, this is exactly the same as Chernobyl,” she said, remembering her initial reaction to hearing news of an explosion at the nuclear reactor building.
Muto eventually filed a lawsuit questioning the responsibility and accountability of the Tepco executives. She had sued them in the hope that “the truth of what happened that day and who should be held accountable would come to light,” she recalled.
Word of the lawsuit spread and support began to snowball, until ultimately 14,716 people signed on to the class action.
Muto went to Tokyo for all 37 of the court sessions held before the ruling was handed down. The notes that she took in the spectators’ gallery of the Tokyo District Court fill 14 notebooks.
From hours of listening to witnesses and pouring over evidence from the spectators’ gallery, she learned that the main reason why the executives repeatedly put off applying countermeasures against possible tsunami was they feared it would cause the company to run at a loss.
Muto believes that a lot of the evidence discussed in court would have never seen the light of day had she not filed the lawsuit.
Yet throughout the trial, the former chairman of Tepco refused to accept responsibility for the nuclear disaster, saying in court that the “relevant department should assume sole responsibility over what safety measures should have been put into place.”
“These were the words of the head of the biggest nuclear energy business in the country. It was almost like it represented a society that refuses to take responsibility,” Muto said.
The words made her feel powerless, she recalled.
Although the court claims there are 57 victims — people who had either died or were physically injured by the disaster — Muto believes “countless victims have been affected by the accident.”
Fumio Okubo was one of those countless victims.
“I wanted him to die a dignified death. It pains me that that didn’t happen,” said his daughter-in-law, Mieko Okubo, 66, as she placed flowers on his grave, nine summers after his death, before putting her hands together in quiet prayer.
In April 2011, Fumio hanged himself at their house. He was 102. It happened half a day after the government ordered the entire village to evacuate following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
On Fumio’s 99th birthday, 80 members of his extended family got together to celebrate. He wowed those who had come to celebrate by singing his favorite songs for them. When he turned 100, he received awards and gifts from all over the country celebrating his long life. That day is captured in a photo of him on his birthday, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A wide smile lights up his face in the photograph.
But two years later, as he lay in his coffin, Fumio looked calm — almost like he was sleeping. His last words to Mieko were “I might have lived a tad too long.”
As a man who loved his hometown and made a living through farming, Iitate village — his home — was also his life. Mieko eventually developed a visceral dislike for nuclear power and its potentially devastating effects. She filed a civil lawsuit at the Fukushima District Court in July 2015 against Tepco, seeking to hold the utility responsible. All she wanted was revenge.
She got that three years later in February 2018, when Mieko won the lawsuit against Tepco.
In keeping with Mieko’s wishes, Tepco employees visited her at her house to apologize in person. “We are deeply sorry,” they had said, before lighting incense in memory of Fumio — a common practice in Japan that displays respect for the deceased — as Mieko had requested.
Yet despite the courtroom win and the compliance with Mieko’s wishes, she also heard later that the employees who visited her were employees in charge of handling matters related to the “aftermath” of the accident.
“My father-in-law is gone, and he won’t ever come back. It should have been the company executives who were being held accountable for the accident who came to apologize,” Mieko said.
“I didn’t get any sense of integrity from them,” she added.
Mieko had repeatedly asked Tepco to think of the issue as one that “may have affected their very own family.” After the Great East Japan Earthquake, over 100 suicides within Fukushima Prefecture alone have been officially recognized as being caused by the nuclear disaster.
Mieko believes that there is a culture of devaluing people’s lives that is prevalent within the company.
The devastating effects of the accident are as clear as day. Yet, the detachment of the employees were as if the issue didn’t concern them at all, Mieko said.
This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original articles were published on Sept. 12, 13 and 14.

October 20, 2019 Posted by | fukushima 2019 | , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima Accident is Becoming More Severe, Residents Continue to Struggle: Ruiko Muto on 7 Years of the Nuclear Disaster

March 16, 2018
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Ruiko Muto is a well-known community activist in Fukushima, associated with ‘Fukushima Women Against Nukes’ and several other citizens’ platforms. She has played a pivotal role in the arduous legal battle to ensure compensation and justice for the Fukushima residents.
 
DiaNuke.org: It is 7 years of the ongoing accident in Fukushima and the disaster has slipped out of the international media. How serious is the situation now?
 
Ruiko Muto: The media in Japan is the same with reduced coverage nationwide. Even within Fukushima Prefecture, most of the news coverage focuses on recovery efforts and there are hardly any important articles on the accident or the damage and sometimes nothing at all. However, the reality is that this accident is very far from over and the damage it has caused, while taking on different shapes and forms, is only becoming more severe.
 
Within the Fukushima Daiichi site, it hasn’t even been confirmed where the melted fuel actually fell to. Every hour 88,000 bequerels of cesium is emitted from the destroyed reactors into the atmosphere. The fuel still has to be cooled and the water used for this becomes radioactive. There is now approximately 1 million tons of contaminated water and it is stored in 900 tanks on the site. METI and the NRA want to release water containing tritium, a radioactive substance which cannot be removed from the water, into the ocean. Filters, which are used in the ALPS system to remove other radioactive substances from the water and which are highly radioactive, are placed in specialized containers and are piling up. The metal structures holding up the Units 1 and 2 exhaust towers have stress fractures and even TEPCO has acknowledged the danger.
 
At present, there are approximately 5,000 workers at Fukushima Daiichi every day. Giving the reason that radiation levels have dropped somewhat, these workers are not required to wear heavy protective clothing. Even though there are some places which measure dozens of microsieverts per hour (μSv/h), work must be carried out there and on top of this, wages are set to be reduced.
 
Thyroid cancer testing on children who were under 18 years old at the time of the accident has revealed 193 cases of confirmed or suspected cancer. Even though this is dozens of times higher than before the accident, the authorities say that the accident is unlikely to have had an impact on cancer rates. Private groups have clearly shown that there are thyroid cancer patients who are not included in these figures and there are serious doubts about the entire testing system.
 
As a result of decontamination, there are 22 million tons of radioactive waste within Fukushima Prefecture. Only 3% of it has been transported to designated storage facilities, the rest is lying around in ‘temporary dumps’ or has been buried in school grounds or parks or in gardens of private houses.
 
High school and university students are taken on tours of Fukushima Daiichi to see the decommissioning work. They play scissor/paper/rock type games with radiation as the subject and are exposed to advertising and education that makes them believe that radiation is harmless.
 
DiaNuke.org: You have been working on the legal front, to ensure just compensation for the victims. What have been the challenges in this regard?
 
Ruiko Muto: Our court case is not a civil action to demand compensation, but rather a criminal case to determine who was responsible for this accident.
 
In 2012 we collected about 1,500 plaintiffs and lodged a criminal complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office against TEPCO executives, the Director of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and those responsible in regulatory bodies, etc. However, the Prosecutor’s Office dismissed our claim, saying there was insufficient grounds for charges to be laid.
 
In Japan, in principle, it is the Prosecutor’s Office which lays charges, but it is possible to appeal to a judicial review panel which is made up of ordinary citizens. We did this and the panel ruled that just the 3 TEPCO officials were liable to stand trial.
 
In this trial, the victims were designated as only the 44 people who lost their lives in the evacuation process immediately after the accident. This means that, myself included, most of the plaintiffs are not officially part of the case and cannot directly participate in proceedings. I have attended each of the trials so far as an observer and make every effort to make sure what happens in the court is made public.
 
DiaNuke.org: Do you see the ‘nuclear village’ reviving its control since the accident? How have the government and TEPCo undermined their responsibilities?
 
Ruiko Muto: In the many court cases demanding compensation, administrative tribunals and criminal cases that have been filed, TEPCO has claimed that the nuclear accident was caused by a natural disaster which was impossible to predict, so it does not bear any responsibility. However, it has become clear in subsequent investigations and trials that TEPCO had done simulations and was aware of the threat of a large tsunami flooding the Fukushima Daiichi NPS and that counter measures must be prepared in order to protect the reactors, yet because of the large sums of money required for this, they had simply put it off.
 
Following the disaster, utilities had voluntarily refrained from advertising but recently they have started again in full force. They claim that if nuclear reactors aren’t re-started then electricity bills will go up. METI continues to underestimate the cost of nuclear power generation.
 
The giant construction corporations which built the nuclear reactors in the first place are now getting contracts worth tens of billions of yen for decommissioning and decontamination work. They have built multiple massive incinerators and are again reaping huge profits.
 
DiaNuke.org: The Japanese government has declared newer areas contamination-free last year and has asked people to return. What are the risks involved in such policy?
 
Ruiko Muto: In March and April last year evacuation orders over large areas were lifted. This policy of trying to make people return is not an invitation to return to a place that is as safe as when you lived there. Before the accident, the annual radiation exposure limit was 1 milli-sievert (mSv), but now the government is saying ‘We’ve decontaminated to below 20 mSv so please go home.’ Last year I went to some of the ‘decontaminated’ areas and there were several places with air dose readings of over 1μSv per hour.
 
Most of the people who have decided to return are elderly, the younger generation with children have mostly decided not to return. There is no provision for recreation or protection from radiation. And there are not sufficient transport, shopping, hospital or aged care facilities. The areas are infested with wild boars and other wild animals as well as thieves.
 
DiaNuke.org: Besides compensation, Fukushima evacuees also face problems of social disruption and mental trauma. What are the challenges and how should the governments respond?
 
Ruiko Muto: After such a long time as an evacuee, many have been unable to find anything to do and have withdrawn into their small temporary homes, some have developed alcohol or gambling addictions and many have become clinically depressed. It’s very difficult to know how to make decisions about the future and there have also been cases of suicide due to the extremely stressful conditions. People who used to live in big extended families have been split up and many family relationships have become difficult due to different opinions on whether or not to return to their homes. There are many cases of divorce between couples where the mother and her children have evacuated.
 
Also, housing allowances for evacuees from areas where official evacuation orders were not issued have been cut, so the only form of compensation these people received is now unavailable. Many have lost their accommodation and are living in very difficult conditions. Some have received court-orders to vacate because they decided to remain in their evacuee housing.
 
DiaNuke.org: The Japanese government signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation(CSC) in 2015, after Fukushima, which has no provision for holding nuclear manufacturers accountable. What has been your experience of the legal fight in this regard?
 
Ruiko Muto: Within Japan also nuclear manufacturers cannot be held responsible for accidents. A court case was launched claiming that manufacturers did have responsibility, but it was dismissed. However, in a system where manufacturers cannot be held responsible, when there is an accident, there is a real danger that facts will be covered up and important questions will be deliberately unanswered.
 
DiaNuke.org: The Japanese government continues to export reactor technologies to other countries, besides restarting reactors domestically. How do people in Fukushima see this?
 
Ruiko Muto: The people in Fukushima Prefecture who are living though the nuclear disaster don’t want anyone in the world to have to experience the massive damage and the suffering that they have experienced. I believe that most of the people of Fukushima are opposed to domestic restarts as well as exports of nuclear technology to other countries.
 
In this regard, however, the Fukushima Prefecture Governor, although he is opposed to nuclear reactors in Fukushima, has not expressed opposition or even concern regarding nuclear reactors in other prefectures or overseas exports. This is extremely disappointing.
 

March 22, 2018 Posted by | Fukushima 2018 | , , | Leave a comment