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Lawyer urges Fukushima evacuees to individually file suits against TEPCO

Kenichi Ido, lawyer for a voluntary evacuee and his family from Fukushima Prefecture, holds a news conference in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, on Feb. 18, 2016. (Mainichi)

A Kyoto District Court ruling on Feb. 18 that ordered Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to pay a man in his 40s and his family redress for damages due to voluntary evacuation has drawn mixed reactions from voluntary evacuees and other parties. The ruling marked the first time that TEPCO, the operator of the disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, was deemed responsible for damages stemming from voluntary evacuation by local residents.

The court ordered the utility to pay about 30 million yen in damages to the family from Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, because the man -- the owner of multiple restaurants -- lost his job and developed mental illness after voluntarily evacuating to Kyoto with his family in the wake of the nuclear disaster triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The compensation is much higher than about 11 million yen proposed by the government-backed alternative dispute resolution (ADR) procedures.

''We are relieved as (the compensation) will allow us to make a living for the time being, but with only such a limited amount we can't forecast our future prospects because my husband can't work (because of mental illness),'' lawyer Kenichi Ido quoted the man's wife as commenting at a news conference after the ruling.

Ido is a former judge who, as the then presiding judge at the Kanazawa District Court, ordered a halt to the operation of the No. 2 reactor of the Shika Nuclear Power Plant in Ishikawa Prefecture in 2006. Ido said at his news conference, ''It's a commendable ruling in that it accepted our key arguments. There are many voluntary evacuees who have been compelled to settle for small amounts of compensation by TEPCO. They should file suit individually.''

According to people with knowledge of ADR-brokered compromise settlements involving voluntary evacuees, compensation standards set by TEPCO and the governmental Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation have been very strict, limiting redress to only 80,000 yen per adult and a labor incapacity period to six months. The Kyoto District Court's ruling raised redress to the man to 1 million yen.

Lawyer Naoto Akiyama, a member of the Daini Tokyo Bar Association who handles many ADR cases, praised the decision as ''a ruling which offers hope to evacuees who moved voluntarily, reflecting individual circumstances without being bound to the standards.'' Masafumi Yokemoto, a professor of environmental policy at Osaka City University's Graduate School of Business who is familiar with the ADR issue, says, ''It's unlikely for the central government and TEPCO to change the standards, but an accumulation of judgments in individual suits will be the key to substantially change the standards.''

Evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear disaster have filed class action lawsuits across the country. Akiko Morimatsu, 42, co-leader of a national coalition of groups of plaintiffs in Fukushima nuclear disaster lawsuits, fled from Koriyama to Osaka with her two children. She says, ''The ruling is epoch-making for ordering a far bigger amount of compensation than the ADR norms by taking individual circumstances of voluntary evacuees into consideration. If many people raise their voices in the future, the reality of damages will come to light more clearly.''

But she expressed her displeasure with the ruling in that it limited the reasonable period of voluntary evacuation to the end of August in 2012, saying, ''It's wrong because it's based on government propaganda.'' The ruling reflects a decision by the governmental Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation to set the deadline for local residents to continuously evacuate rationally, arguing there was not enough information about dangers from the nuclear disaster up until that deadline.

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