Negligence by the government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) contributed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, a court in Japan has ruled, saying the catastrophe could have been avoided, and marking the first time the state has been held liable.
The district court north of Tokyo found that the government and the plant's operator Tepco were responsible. (Damages in Japanese civil cases tend to be much smaller than those in the U.S.) TEPCO is already paying compensation of ¥100,000 per month to victims who were forced to evacuate the area around the plant. As part of the process to clean-up areas in the vicinity of the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant that were evacuated because of fear of radiation. The court awarded ¥70,000 ($621) to ¥3.5 million ($31,000) each to 62 of the 137 plaintiffs, for a total of ¥38.55 million.
But the court ruled that the disaster could have been averted if government regulators had ordered Tepco to take preventive safety steps, Kyodo News reported.
Meanwhile, in its long-term estimate, unveiled in 2002, the government said that the probability of an natural disaster striking in the Japan Trench off the coast of northeastern Japan, including the sea area off the Fukushima No. 1 plant, was "about 20 percent within 30 years", the Asahi Shimbun paper said.
Anti-nuclear sentiment runs high in Japan, but the government says the country needs nuclear power and has moved to restart reactors that were shuttered in the aftermath of the disaster.
In their lawsuit, 137 former residents had sued for damages of about $97,000 per person, and the court awarded damages to half the plaintiffs.
The ruling was still described by The Japanese Times as "stunning", given the large number of similar cases working their way through the court system. Both the government and TEPCO attacked the reliability of the 2002 and 2008 studies, calling them unscientific and at odds with the opinions of other experts.
The ruling hinged on a 2002 government report on long-term quake risks, in which a panel of seismologists estimated around a 20% chance of magnitude 8 natural disaster triggering a tsunami off the coast of northeastern Japan in the next 30 years. Three of the plant's six reactors were hit by meltdowns, making the Fukushima nuclear disaster the worst since the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986.
Tepco said no decision had been made yet on whether to appeal against the ruling, adding that it would consider how to respond after examining the decision.