Japan’s top court on Friday ruled that the government was not liable for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, dismissing thousands of evacuees’ demands that the state, not just the utility, pay compensation for the damages inflicted to their lives.
Friday’s ruling was the first Supreme Court decision on the government responsibility for the Fukushima disaster in four compensation lawsuits filed by about 3,700 Fukushima residents.
The four-judge bench headed by Hiroyuki Kanno said that the government could not be held liable for the disaster because damage from the tsunami of that magnitude could not have been prevented even if the industry minister had used his regulatory authority and ordered the utility to enhance a seawall based on a tsunami estimate at that time.
The ruling, which reversed three of the four high-court decisions that acknowledged the government’s responsibility, could affect about 30 other similar lawsuits pending across the country.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered triple meltdowns following the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, spreading massive radiation in the area and displacing more than 160,000 people at one point.
The plaintiffs in the four lawsuits, many of whom are still displaced in and outside of Fukushima, demanded compensation for the loss of livelihoods and communities because of the disaster.
Seiju Nanbara, who joined the lawsuit two years after he evacuated from his home in Minamisoma, just north of the wrecked plant, to Chiba, said he and other plaintiffs who heard the ruling in the courtroom were speechless because they were so disappointed.
“The ruling only looked at the government, not us,” the 62-year-old said. “I don’t think the judges understood, or even tried to understand our pain.”
“The ruling is absolutely unacceptable,” said the chief lawyer, Izutaro Managi, as he rushed out from the courtroom to share the decision with the plaintiffs and their supporters who waited outside. “The court did not squarely faced or responded to the questions we raised.”
He criticized the ruling for failing to address the question over whether the disaster was foreseeable, or if it could have been avoided had the government taken appropriate steps.
Hundreds of plaintiffs and their supporters outside the court showed anger, disappointment and disbelief, but many said they will continue their fight for a better decision in the pending cases.
“We must not let this ruing affect the pending lawsuits,” Managi said.
The cases against the government and the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings were originally filed separately in Fukushima and three other prefectures — Gunma, Chiba and Ehime — where the plaintiffs evacuated.
Currently, only TEPCO is obliged to cover damages worth over 1.4 billion yen ($10 million).
The dispute centered on whether the government could have foreseen the risk of a massive tsunami based on a tsunami prediction report, and whether the accident could have been averted if the government had ordered TEPCO to take precautions.
The attention also focused on the reliability of a long-term assessment of seismic activities released by a government expert panel in 2002, nine years before the accident.
The government argued that the report was not reliable and the accident was unavoidable.
The plaintiffs said the tsunami assessment was credible and the government should have used it as a basis to order the utility to take tsunami prevention measures. They said the disaster could have been avoided if the government had instructed TEPCO properly.
A Tokyo District Court ruling in 2019 found three former TEPCO executives not guilty in a criminal case, saying they could not have foreseen the massive tsunami. An appeal ruling is expected in January.