Voluntary evacuees granted only small awards in Fukushima nuke disaster damage case
While the March 17 Maebashi District Court ruling acknowledged that both the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) are liable for the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, it dealt a harsh blow to those who voluntarily evacuated their Fukushima Prefecture homes in the wake of the meltdowns.
The court awarded a total of 38.55 million yen in damages to 62 of the 137 plaintiffs who fled from Fukushima Prefecture to Gunma Prefecture and elsewhere — about one-fortieth of the complainants’ total compensation demand of approximately 1.5 billion yen. This was because the court acknowledged to some extent the rationale behind the government-set “interim guidelines” for TEPCO’s compensation payment standards. The court rejected claims made by over half of the plaintiffs, saying that the amount of compensation they are entitled to does not exceed that which has already been paid by TEPCO.
The interim guidelines were set by the education ministry’s Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation in August 2011 to ensure swift compensation to cover damages common to many residents in the nuclear disaster-hit areas. Based on the guidelines, TEPCO set up standards for compensation payments, such as a monthly payment of 100,000 yen per person for those from evacuation zones and, as a rule, one-off payments of 80,000 yen for each voluntary evacuee. Voluntary evacuees in nuclear disaster class-action suits across the country are arguing that 80,000 yen is too small an amount, considering that leaving Fukushima Prefecture was a reasonable decision.
Some experts have criticized the district court decision, saying that it only confirmed the legitimacy of the interim guidelines. At the same time, the ruling was based on the court’s own calculation for deciding the compensation amount for each plaintiff, which set five “emotional distress” categories to be considered including the feeling of losing one’s hometown.
Nevertheless, the compensation amounts in the ruling differed greatly between the plaintiffs from evacuation zones and voluntary evacuees. Nineteen plaintiffs who used to live in areas under evacuation orders were awarded compensation payments of between 750,000 yen and 3.5 million yen each, while 43 voluntary evacuees were granted awards of between 70,000 yen and 730,000 yen.
One of the plaintiffs who had voluntarily left the city of Iwaki was awarded about 200,000 yen in damages for the 10-day period right after the March 2011 meltdowns. However, the ruling denied that the same woman’s decision to flee Fukushima Prefecture again two months after the meltdowns was rational, saying that high radiation doses were not detected in Iwaki and no other particularly concerning circumstances were present.
Attorney Tsutomu Yonekura of the national liaison association of lawyers representing Fukushima nuclear disaster evacuees said of the Maebashi District Court ruling, “The amount of compensation provided for in the ruling remains at the same level as that set in the interim guidelines, even though the court claimed to have independently calculated the compensation payments. It’s not enough as judicial redress.”
Fukushima nuke disaster evacuees disappointed by court’s compensation award
Fukushima Prefecture evacuees in a class action suit over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster were disappointed by the 38.55 million yen in total compensation awarded on March 17 by the Maebashi District Court, as the amount was just one-fortieth what they had been seeking.
“I was expecting to hear a ruling that would support us more,” one of the plaintiffs said after the verdict, which came 3 1/2 years after they filed the suit and six years after the disaster’s onset.
“We have made the court recognize the responsibility of the central government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO). I am honestly happy about that,” plaintiff Sugie Tanji, 60, said to a gathering following the ruling. However, she continued, “The past six years was filled with many hardships. I wonder if I can convince myself to accept the ruling…”
Tanji was a resident of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Her 63-year-old husband Mikio ran a repair business, but orders plunged following the No. 1 plant meltdowns. Four months later, the couple voluntarily evacuated to Gunma Prefecture.
Although Tanji felt guilty for leaving fellow residents behind, she took part in anti-nuclear power rallies and demonstrations in Gunma Prefecture and joined the class action suit, believing that there must never be another nuclear disaster.
Of the 137 plaintiffs from 45 households, representatives of almost all the households appeared in court, testifying to the agony of living as evacuees and expressing their anger toward TEPCO and the central government. However, only a few of them have made their names public out of concern for possible discrimination against their children and negative effects on their jobs. Tanji herself recalls being told, “You can get money if you go to court, can’t you?”
Under government guidelines, those who evacuated voluntarily are entitled to only 80,000 yen in consolation money from TEPCO, including living expenses. The plaintiffs thought the amount was far too small considering the pain of losing their hometowns. However, only 62 of the 137 plaintiffs were awarded compensation.
“I was expecting a warmer ruling,” said a woman in her 50s who sat in on the March 17 hearing clad in mourning attire. She was working part-time for a company in Iwaki, but was fired after the nuclear disaster impacted the firm’s business performance.
This and radiation exposure fears prompted her and her husband to evacuate to Gunma Prefecture two months later. Her husband, however, developed a malignant brain tumor the following year, after the couple settled into an apartment that the Gunma Prefectural Government had rented for evacuees. Her husband died in the fall of 2014 at age 52.
The woman says she still doesn’t feel like she can start working and subsists on her savings and survivor’s pension. At the end of March, the Fukushima Prefectural Government is set to terminate its housing subsidies for voluntary evacuees. For her, the compensation awarded by the Maebashi District Court was “unimaginably low.”
“I can’t report the ruling to my husband,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Gov’t and TEPCO put money before safety at Fukushima nuclear plant: court ruling
The Maebashi District Court ordered the central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to pay damages in a class action lawsuit brought by Fukushima Prefecture residents who evacuated to Gunma Prefecture and elsewhere due to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, the amount was much smaller than what the plaintiffs had demanded, thereby failing to provide nuclear crisis victims the relief they seek.
On March 17, the Maebashi District Court recognized the responsibility of both the central government and TEPCO, operator of the stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. It stated that TEPCO should have been aware that the Fukushima plant could be hit by tsunami approximately nine years prior to the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and that the state failed to order TEPCO to take appropriate anti-tsunami measures despite having the regulatory authority to do so.
“That the court recognized the central government’s liability for compensation is very significant,” the plaintiffs’ lead counsel Katsuyoshi Suzuki said at a rally that was held in Maebashi following the ruling. “It is also extremely important that the court recognized that the state was as culpable as TEPCO.”
The plaintiffs argued that TEPCO could have predicted a massive tsunami and taken measures to prevent a nuclear crisis. They also argued that the government was responsible for promoting the development and use of nuclear power. In its ruling, the court harshly criticized TEPCO, taking into account the far-reaching impacts and dangers of the ongoing nuclear disaster. “The utility must maintain a safety-first policy, but it appears to have placed priority on cost cutting,” the ruling said.
In July 2002, the government’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion pointed out the possibility that an approximately magnitude 8 earthquake could occur in the Japan Trench, part of which runs along the ocean floor off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. Based on this “long-term evaluation,” TEPCO estimated in 2008 that tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could hit its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, yet no safety measures based on this estimate were taken.
Instead, TEPCO used a tsunami assessment formula created by the Japan Society of Civil Engineers (JSCE), comprising university professors and power company researchers, which put the height of tsunami that could potentially hit the nuclear plant at a mere 6.1 meters. The tsunami that slammed into the plant on March 11, 2011 hit a maximum height of 15.5 meters.
The Maebashi court took issue with the fact that although TEPCO could have instituted relatively easy anti-tsunami measures, such as relocating its emergency power source to higher ground, it had failed to do so. The Atomic Energy Damage Compensation Law — which stipulates that the business operator, regardless of whether or not they were negligent, must pay damages in the case of a nuclear disaster — was applied to reach the decision. However, the court rejected the claim for compensation based on illegal action under the Civil Code.
The ruling also went into detail regarding the government’s responsibility. In September 2006, the now defunct Nuclear Safety Committee (NSC) laid down new earthquake-resistance standards, and the government instructed TEPCO and other utilities to assess whether their nuclear power plants met the new criteria. However, in August 2007, TEPCO submitted a mid-term report to the government that did not include any anti-tsunami measures. The Maebashi District Court’s ruling pointed out that the government subsequently violated the law by not ordering TEPCO to implement anti-tsunami measures. It also said, “The state was in a position to take the initiative to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and was strongly expected to appropriately exercise its regulatory authority to prevent nuclear disasters.”
Much of the evidence and issues that were reviewed by the court are the same as those being reviewed in similar class-action lawsuits and the criminal trials of former TEPCO executives, whose pretrial conference procedures are to be held March 29.
The Maebashi ruling “made clear the government’s negligence in postponing checks on whether new quake-resilience standards were being met,” says attorney Yuichi Kaido, who will represent the victims in the upcoming criminal trial. “That matches our claims. The ruling was groundbreaking, and it will create a tide that will influence other court cases.”
Because there are many other similar cases being fought in courts nationwide, it is highly likely that the dispute will continue in an appeal trial in the Tokyo High Court. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on March 17, “We will look closely at the content of the ruling, and deliberate a response from there,” hinting that the government will look to appeal.
Ruling on Fukushima nuclear crisis a grave admonition of gov’t
In a class action suit filed by residents of Fukushima Prefecture who evacuated to Gunma Prefecture and elsewhere due to the ongoing Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, the Maebashi District Court ordered both the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the central government to pay 62 residents a total of 38.55 million yen. It marked the first time that the judiciary recognized the state’s responsibility for negligence in the nuclear disaster.
The court ruling should be seen as admonition from the judiciary that the state has a grave responsibility over its nuclear power policy.
The main focus of the case was on whether TEPCO had been able to predict the size of the tsunami that struck the plant on March 11, 2011, and whether the state should have exercised its regulatory authority to make TEPCO implement necessary safety measures.
The plaintiffs focused on a long-term assessment on earthquakes, which the government released in 2002, as evidence to show that TEPCO had been able to predict a tsunami like the one that hit the Fukushima plant. The report stated that there was about a 20 percent chance that an earthquake of around magnitude 8 would occur off the coast between the northern Sanriku region and the Boso Peninsula within the next 30 years.
Based on this report, TEPCO predicted in 2008 that tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could hit the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The actual tsunami that hit the nuclear power station on March 11, 2011, however, was 15.5 meters tall. The plaintiffs argued that if TEPCO had taken the appropriate anti-tsunami measures based on the long-term assessment and other specific forecasts, the nuclear crisis could have been avoided.
The Maebashi District Court ruled almost entirely in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that TEPCO neglected to take measures despite having been able to predict that such a large tsunami could hit the nuclear plant, putting cost-cutting ahead of safety.
The court also handed down a similar decision regarding the culpability of the central government. Nuclear disasters cause irreparable damage over a large area. The court ruled that the fact that the central government did not exercise its regulatory authority even though TEPCO’s anti-tsunami measures were insufficient was extremely unreasonable when considering the import of the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law and other rules. It is notable, also, that the court ruled that the state’s responsibility was on par with that of TEPCO’s, and ordered the state to pay the plaintiffs the same amount in damages as the utility.
At the same time, however, the ruling was parsimonious in the compensation amount that it ordered be paid to the individual plaintiffs. Because the court deducted compensation money that TEPCO has already paid, the amount it approved was far below what the plaintiffs had demanded.
The plaintiffs had demanded 11 million yen per person — including for those who had evacuated voluntarily — citing loss of their hometowns and jobs, and grave emotional distress. For many of the plaintiffs, therefore, the ruling has likely come as a disappointment.
Around 30 similar lawsuits have been filed nationwide, by around 12,000 plaintiffs who have evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture. Rulings have not yet been handed down in any of those cases.
Why wasn’t the disaster prevented? Who is responsible? Much of the public is still seeking answers to these questions.
However, the nuclear disaster investigative committees of both the government and the Diet have disbanded, bringing their respective probes into causes of the crisis to a halt. The lessons from the ongoing disaster have yet to be learned in their entirety. It is because a single nuclear incident has grave and far-reaching consequences that an examination of its cause is so important.
A citizens’ group supporting the people in Fukushima Prefecture who have fled from their homes in the wake of the March 2011 nuclear disaster has submitted a petition to the Diet with nearly 200,000 signatures asking for the continuation of public housing assistance for the evacuees. The prefectural government announced last year that it plans at the end of next March to terminate the assistance for people who voluntarily left their homes. However, most such evacuees have yet to find new residences.
Halting the housing assistance will place a heavy financial burden on low-income evacuees. Fears also persist over the radioactive contamination in the areas where they lived before the nuclear crisis. Not only the prefecture but the national government, which pays for a large portion of the assistance, should rethink the decision.
As of July, some 89,000 Fukushima people continued to live away from their homes — 48,000 inside the prefecture and 41,000 elsewhere in Japan — after they fled from the dangers posed by the triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant. Some evacuees followed the government’s designation of their hometowns as no-go zones due to the high levels of fallout, while others left their homes on their own out of fear of radiation exposure, particularly for their children, and other reasons even though they lived outside the designated evacuation zones.
The Fukushima Prefectural Government has since been providing housing assistance to the nuclear refugees regardless of whether they stayed within the prefecture — and regardless of whether they were forced out by government order or fled by choice — to cover their rent, including for public housing units owned by local governments. Fukushima has offered the aid by annually renewing the application of the Disaster Relief Law, under which a prefectural government carries out relief measures to residents in the event of a disaster — including supply of food, water, clothing and medical services as well as emergency repairs to damaged homes — with a large portion of the cost coming from national coffers. The national government has shouldered most of the expense of the housing assistance regarding Fukushima.
The prefectural government announced in June last year that it would end the assistance for voluntary evacuees at the end of next March. Gov. Masao Uchibori said the termination is aimed at prompting the evacuees to return to their original homes and at helping promote their sense of self-reliance. He explained that living conditions in the prefecture have improved with the development of public infrastructure and progress in the cleanup of radiation-contaminated soil.
According to a prefectural report based on a survey conducted in January and February, the decision will halt housing assistance for 12,436 households. Of the 3,614 households that voluntarily evacuated but remained in the prefecture, 56 percent have not yet found a place where they can live once the assistance is halted. The corresponding figure for the 3,453 such households living outside the prefecture is much higher — nearly 78 percent. The prefecture should pay serious attention to these findings. Some families may not be able to find and pay for a new home, although the prefecture reportedly plans to offer small subsidies for low-income and single-mother households after the large-scale assistance is ended.
The voluntary evacuees are confronted with various difficulties, both financial and psychological. The amount of compensation they received from Tepco is much smaller than that paid out to evacuees from the no-go zones. They also do not receive the monthly damages of some ¥100,000 that Tepco doles out to cover the mental suffering of those from the designated evacuation zones. Many of them face hardships ranging from the loss of their former jobs to separation from family members, long-distance commuting and divorces of couples due to differences over evacuating. The loss of housing assistance will likely result in even more hardships, both financial and emotional.
Many of the voluntary evacuees remain reluctant to go back to their hometowns for a variety of reasons, including the persistent fear of radiation, the desolate conditions of their original homes, and anticipated low levels of medical and other services in their former communities. The national government says it is safe for evacuees to return if the annual cumulative dose in the area is 20 millisieverts (mSv) or less, but that level is much higher than the legal limit of 1 mSv allowed for people in ordinary circumstances. In Ukraine, hit by the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, people are required to migrate if the annual cumulative dose in their area is 5 mSv or more and have “the right to evacuate” if the rate is between 1 mSv and 5 mSv. The national government and Fukushima Prefecture need to address why many of the volunteer evacuees are reluctant to return.
The national government may want to highlight the reconstruction in areas devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as well as the Fukushima nuclear disaster when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. However, this should not result in the premature termination of vital relief measures for the affected people or untimely lifting of the designation of danger zones hit by the nuclear crisis. The government, which has sought to reactivate the nation’s nuclear power plants idled since the 2011 disaster, should understand why the evacuees felt they had to flee from their homes in the first place. It should not give up its duty of adequately helping the disaster victims.
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