Ruling against Tepco sets high bar for nuclear safety
Court rules government and utility negligent, but awards scanty damages
TOKYO -- In ruling that Japan's government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant could have predicted and prevented the March 2011 nuclear accident, a district court has established a tough standard for risk mitigation at nuclear power operations -- one other judges may or may not support.
The Maebashi District Court on Friday found that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings were negligent in preparing measures to guard against the major tsunami that set off meltdowns at the plant, rejecting the argument that the event could not have been anticipated.
The ruling hinged on a 2002 government report on long-term earthquake risks, in which a panel of seismologists estimated around a 20% chance of magnitude 8 earthquake triggering a tsunami off the coast of northeastern Japan in the next 30 years. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, a group of Fukushima Prefecture residents who were forced to evacuate or fled following the disaster, argued that the March 2011 event was therefore predictable, and that the ensuing meltdowns could have been prevented had steps been taken to better protect the plant's backup power generators, for example.
Tepco and the government contested that claim, saying that a number of scholars disputed the report's conclusions and arguing that the document was insufficiently scientific. No earthquake or tsunami can be predicted with 100% certainty, and opinions differ on how likely a given event is and on how accurate predictions are.
The court sided with the plaintiffs, giving significant weight to the report's conclusions and stating that Tepco had put economic expediency ahead of safety. The ruling can be seen as a warning to the government and utilities that, in the case of nuclear power, preparations must always be made for the worst-case scenario, given the enormous damage a single accident can do.
Tepco compensates victims of the disaster based on guidelines set by a government panel. This includes monthly payments of 100,000 yen to residents of areas ordered to evacuate, and one-off payments of 120,000 yen to those outside evacuation areas who fled of their own accord. The plaintiffs in this case claimed those payments were insufficient.
While the court ordered those amounts to be revised upward based on individuals' circumstances, just 38.55 million yen ($342,131) in damages were awarded to 62 of the 137 plaintiffs -- less than 3% of the roughly 1.5 billion yen sought. Several attorneys for the group have complained that this amount is too small, particularly given that the defendants were found to be negligent.
The ruling that "the national government could have foreseen" the disaster "has an enormous impact," according to a long-serving judge. But the outcomes of 28 other lawsuits former Fukushima residents have filed in 18 prefectures "is ultimately up to individual judges," who will likely not be swayed by the Maebashi court's decision, that person said.
Other utilities, along with Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, called the ruling tough, but have largely refrained from commenting further. The regulator will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday, and will "weigh a response after having read the ruling closely," a spokesperson said.
The NRA, formed in 2012, has toughened regulations to better account for the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as the limits of scientific knowledge. Other utilities working under the new rules to bring nuclear power plants back online "likely will feel no direct impact" from the ruling against Tepco, according to an official at Kyushu Electric Power. Still, the decision could reinvigorate anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, making obtaining local approval for reactor restarts more difficult.