In a lawsuit brought by some 3,600 residents of Fukushima Prefecture and neighboring prefectures against the Japanese government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station for the damage the residents suffered from the nuclear disaster that broke out in March 2011, the Sendai High Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the defendants to pay compensation to them.
There are approximately 30 civil lawsuits pertaining to the nuclear disaster that have been filed across the country, but this is the first time that a high court has recognized the state's compensation liability for the incident. As verdicts over the national government's negligence have been split in the lower courts, the latest ruling carries great weight.
At issue in the series of ongoing lawsuits is how the "long-term assessment" released by the government's Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion in 2002 should be interpreted. At stake here is whether the nuclear power plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (TEPCO), and the national government should have implemented measures based on experts' predictions that a massive tsunami could occur off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture.
The latest ruling in the high court, as well as the lower court, determined that the long-term assessment was an important one, and that measures against the predictions had been necessary. The ruling stated that "TEPCO's desire to do its best to avoid new measures stood out."
The high court harshly criticized the government for "failing to fulfill the role of regulatory authority, which it was expected to undertake." The lower court ruled that the government's responsibility for the disaster was less than that of TEPCO, but this time around, both the government and TEPCO were found to be equally responsible.
It is only natural that the state, which has been promoting nuclear power as a matter of national policy, is held responsible. The recognition of the government's responsibility in the latest ruling is appropriate, and the state must take the ruling seriously.
The ruling increased the compensation amount to twice the figure that was ordered to be paid in the first trial. The high court recognized the awarding of damages for suffering to people who were in evacuation-ordered zones for "losing their hometowns," and expanded the areas eligible for compensation.
The relief system for victims of nuclear disasters is designed so that TEPCO is responsible for compensation, and the state provides assistance. The amount of compensation is calculated based on the government's guidelines determined by variables such as location of residence.
However, because the relief system does not presuppose any negligence by TEPCO or the government, the amount of compensation has been criticized as being too low. TEPCO has continued to reject the payment of compensation in settlement negotiations outside of lawsuits that go over the maximum amount in the government guidelines.
Based on the fact that a high court has clearly acknowledged TEPCO's and the government's negligence, there is a need to proceed with a review of the government's guidelines.
Some 9 1/2 years have passed since the nuclear disaster broke out, but who bears legal responsibility for it has been kept vague. To draw lessons for the prevention of another disaster, TEPCO and the government should not appeal the latest ruling, and instead seek a speedy conclusion to the lawsuit.
Even now, many people are still in evacuation, and many areas are still designated difficult-to-return zones. The state must fulfill its responsibility for the nuclear crisis, and proactively deal with damage recovery.