A Japanese high court on 21 January ordered Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP, to pay damages to evacuated residents.

However, it overturned a lower court ruling that had also acknowledged central government responsibility for the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Residents were forced to leave their hometowns after three reactors at the nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns at the plant in the wake of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011.

Among some 30 such lawsuits, this decision by the Tokyo High Court was the first high court ruling to absolve the state of responsibility. It contradicted an earlier decision of the Sendai High Court in September that ordered both the state and Tepco to pay damages.

The government's failure to instruct Tepco to take measures against a tsunami "is not found to be significantly unreasonable,” Presiding Judge Akira Adachi said in his ruling.

The lawsuit had focused on the reliability of an official long-term quake assessment made in 2002, which has been used in previous rulings to determine the liability of the state and Tepco for their failure to prevent the nuclear disaster. Adachi noted the assessment had been a matter of debate since its release, and that the government was unable to predict a huge tsunami.

Implementing measures such as constructing seawalls would not have prevented water from entering the nuclear plant, he said.

Instead, the ruling ordered Tepco to pay a total JPY119.72 million ($1.1 million) to 90 plaintiffs, which is more than triple the amount awarded by a lower court.

In March 2017, the Maebashi District Court awarded a total of JPY38.55 million to 62 plaintiffs who were evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture, including those who voluntarily left, acknowledging that both the government and Tepco were negligent in preparing for a tsunami such as the one that struck the facility.

The court said the disaster was caused by a failure to cool nuclear fuel as water entered turbine buildings through air supply openings in the wake of the tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake, crippling emergency switchboards.

The lawsuit was filed by a total of 137 plaintiffs relocated to Gunma Prefecture, eastern Japan, and elsewhere. They sought a combined JPY1.5 billion — JPY11 million each — in damages for emotional distress. The plaintiffs said they had lost their livelihoods and faced inconvenience for an extensive period, and the amount they received under current state compensation guidelines was not enough.