TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that the government is not liable for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, dismissing thousands of evacuees' demands that the state, not just the utility, pay compensation for damage to their lives.
The ruling was the first by the top court on 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 the government cannot be held liable because the damage from a massive tsunami that hit the plant 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 declared the government responsible, could affect about 30 similar lawsuits pending across the country.
Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant melted after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011, releasing massive amounts of 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," said Nanbara, 62. “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 from the courtroom to share the decision with plaintiffs and their supporters who waited outside. “The court did not squarely face or respond to the questions we raised."
He said the ruling failed to adequately address the key question of whether the disaster was foreseeable and could have been avoided had the government taken appropriate steps.
Hundreds of plaintiffs and their supporters outside the court showed anger and disappointment, but many said they will continue their fight in the pending cases.
“We must not let this ruling affect the pending lawsuits," Managi said.
The cases against the government and 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 totaling over 1.4 billion yen ($10 million) for the plaintiffs in the four lawsuits.
In a statement after the ruling, TEPCO President Tomoaki Kobayakawa apologized again to those affected by the disaster and vowed to ensure it will never be repeated. He pledged to fully fulfill the company's responsibility to decommission the plant, reconstruct Fukushima and provide compensation.
Chief government spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno said it will continue to “stay close to the evacuees and do its utmost for Fukushima's reconstruction.”
The government has pushed decontamination of affected areas and the reopening of no-go zones, and has urged evacuees to return to their homes while cutting back support for them. The government-set compensation scheme, which is based on distance from the plant and radiation levels, has triggered divisions and discrimination among communities.
The dispute centers on whether the government could have foreseen the risk of a massive tsunami, and whether the accident could have been averted if the government had ordered the utility to take precautions.
The case also focused on the reliability of a long-term assessment of seismic activity released by a government 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 for ordering the utility to take prevention measures which they said could have avoided the disaster.
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.