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Residents of nuclear crisis hit Namie to sue TEPCO, gov't after settlement talks fail

Lawyer Yasuyoshi Hamano (second from right), a key member of a legal team for Namie residents who will sue Tokyo Electric Power Co. demanding compensation for the 2011 nuclear disaster, explains the legal action in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, on Nov. 18, 2018. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyazaki)

KORIYAMA, Fukushima -- Residents of the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, are set to sue the government and the operator of nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station for more compensation over damages caused by the plant's March 2011 triple core meltdown, lawyers for the residents said on Nov. 18.

The lawyers told a press conference here that the residents decided to take the case to the Fukushima District Court on Nov. 27 after the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), repeatedly rejected settlement proposals offered in an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process.

The lawyers said roughly 100 people from the town in northeastern Japan are expected to launch the suit, but the number will likely reach about 2,000. Participating residents held a meeting on Nov. 18 to establish a group of plaintiffs in the prefectural city of Koriyama.

This will be the first time that a group of residents has filed a class action lawsuit after an ADR effort over the nuclear disaster was discontinued, according to the attorneys.

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi station was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Damaged reactors spewed out large amounts of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment, forcing many Namie and other nearby residents to flee. Some have since returned to their homes.

In the five-year-long redress negotiations after the nuclear disaster, TEPCO kept turning down out of court deal proposals made by the Nuclear Damage Claim Dispute Resolution Center, despite the utility's earlier promise to respect such proposals. This forced the center to discontinue the resolution process for some 15,000 Namie residents in April 2018. Over that period, about 850 petitioners, including elderly people, passed away, according to the lawyers.

The would-be plaintiffs will demand additional compensation from TEPCO for "betraying the residents' expectations" by repeatedly refusing to settle the dispute, explained their lawyers.

"TEPCO has rejected reconciliation proposals by citing irrational reasons. As long as the alternative dispute resolution process is ignored, there's no way to extend relief to residents so we have to launch a lawsuit," said lawyer Masaharu Hioki, who heads the legal team for the residents.

In the suit, the residents will demand compensation for being forced to evacuate from their neighborhoods, having their communities destroyed by the disaster and having their expectations for a settlement betrayed by the utility.

Evacuation instructions have been lifted in Namie except in areas designated as zones where it will be difficult for residents to return in the foreseeable future. However, the residents will demand a uniform amount of damages in the suit they will launch. They will also sue the government in order to clarify the state's responsibility for the nuclear accident in March 2011.

The dispute between Namie residents and TEPCO over compensation dates back to May 2013 when the Namie Municipal Government filed a petition with the Nuclear Damage Claim Dispute Resolution Center for an alternative dispute resolution. The move came when late mayor Tamotsu Baba, who passed away in June this year, was actively advocating for better compensation for the townspeople.

In the petition, the town demanded that the amount of monthly compensation for mental anguish be increased from 100,000 yen per person, as set by the Dispute Reconciliation Committee for Nuclear Damage Compensation, to 350,000 yen. In the petition, the town authority represented about 15,000 individuals, or roughly 70 percent of all its residents.

The committee had calculated the amount based on the figure of 126,000 yen per month paid to traffic accident victims from the automobile liability insurance policy. The 100,000 yen includes money to cover an increase in victims' living expenses as a result of evacuation.

Town officials argued at that time that it was "unreasonable that residents receive less compensation than that for traffic accidents" when they were forced out of their hometowns, with fears of radiation exposure and evacuation altering their living environments. "Town residents suffer damage equally. It's only natural for the municipal government responsible for their social welfare to file the petition," they said.

In March 2014, the resolution center proposed reconciliation, under which the amount would be raised by 50,000 yen per month for those under 75 years old and up to 80,000 yen for those aged 75 or over.

The municipal government accepted the proposal on behalf of the residents. However, TEPCO rejected any uniform increase in the amount of compensation six times, forcing the resolution center to discontinue the resolution process.

(Japanese original by Toshiki Miyazaki, Fukushima Bureau)

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