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.