A district court has ordered the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. to pay compensation to dozens of people forced or driven to flee their homes because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Maebashi District Court’s ruling March 17 sends a strong message to both parties to undertake serious soul-searching based on a keen awareness of their responsibility for the nuclear calamity.
Underlying the court decision in the group suit filed by Fukushima evacuees is the notion that both operators of nuclear power plants and the government have a grave obligation to prevent devastating accidents. Its rationale is that they have worked closely together to promote nuclear power generation as matter of national policy. Many people would fully agree with this line of thinking.
But there is no broad consensus on key legal liability issues related to the accident triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. With regard to a criminal complaint filed against former senior TEPCO executives, for instance, prosecutors twice decided not to indict them, prompting a committee for the inquest of prosecution to conclude that the prosecutions must go ahead.
This ruling is the first in a series of group lawsuits that have been filed over the accident with district courts around the nation.
The rulings in all these suits will require close monitoring with regard to such issues as the scope of local residents who are deemed entitled to receive compensation and the amounts of damages awarded.
The Maebashi District Court’s decision came as a fresh reminder of the “complacency” prevailing among policymakers, industry executives and other people involved in nuclear power generation before the March 11, 2011, disaster.
The court found that TEPCO realized as far back as 2002 that there was a possibility of a massive tsunami occurring but failed to take even simple preventive steps. It also said the government should have ordered the utility to take necessary safety measures.
The ruling contains many critical comments about the policies and positions adopted by the company and the government. It contended, for instance, that economy took priority over safety. It also said the government’s unreasonable stance deserved the same kind of criticism that TEPCO should receive.
The ruling echoes the conclusion of the Diet’s investigative committee into the disaster. In 2012, the panel said the fundamental cause of the accident was the failure of the utility and the government to make appropriate responses to the safety risks, even though they were aware of the danger.
Despite all these accusations, TEPCO has yet to publish a detailed review of the way it dealt with the risks of a large tsunami.
The utility should make an exhaustive investigation into what happened to answer many vital questions. The questions include who should have made what kind of decisions and when in order to prevent the accident. Or what kind of organization TEPCO should have been to enable it to accept such decisions?
As the company responsible, TEPCO naturally has an obligation to conduct a serious inquiry to tackle these questions and release its findings to other utilities operating nuclear power plants. It must fulfill this obligation.
The government’s nuclear power policy is also under scrutiny.
After the disaster, a new nuclear safety watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, was established for more effective regulatory oversight over nuclear power generation.
In recent years, however, some utilities have appeared to be resisting regulatory decisions concerning the recognition of the existence of an active fault near a nuclear facility and the estimation of a maximum possible seismic shaking for determining the quake-resistance requirements for a plant.
The latest court ruling should serve as a fresh opportunity for the government to review its own regulations for the nuclear industry. The government should change what has been criticized as a cozy relationship between nuclear regulators and plant operators and ensure that the utilities will always make quick responses to safety risks based on latest scientific knowledge.
In his speech at this year’s official memorial ceremony for the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe didn’t use the term nuclear accident. But there are still many issues related to the accident that remain to be examined and explored with utmost vigor and commitment.