The Japanese district court in Maebashi, north of Tokyo, on 17 March ruled that the government bears partial responsibility for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The court was responding to a case brought by a 137 evacuees forced to leave their homes. It said the accident was caused by failure to cool nuclear fuel as water entered the turbine buildings from their air supply openings in the wake of the tsunami, crippling emergency switchboards there. The trouble would have been "preventable" if the state and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) had taken easy steps such as installing air supply openings at a higher position, the court said. It also criticised Tepco for prioritising "economic rationality" over safety, adding that the state should have used its regulatory powers to make Tepco implement preventive measures.
Issues during the trial centred on whether the state and Tepco could have foreseen the tsunami and whether the amount of Tepco’s compensation under state guidelines is sufficient. The plaintiffs said the government and Tepco could have foreseen tsunami over 10 metres high hitting the plant based on a 2002 government estimate that there was roughly a 20% chance of a magnitude-8-level tsunami-triggering earthquake occurring within the next 30 years.
The 137 plaintiffs included 76 people instructed to evacuate and 61 people who fled at their own discretion. They were seeking a combined JPY1.5bn ($13.3m) in damages for emotional distress. The government and Tepco were both ordered to compensate the evacuees, with the court awarding a total of JPY38.55m in damages to 62 people, including some who left voluntarily. Some 80,000 people were forced to abandon their homes following the meltdown of three reactors failed at the plant during the accident.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, told a press conference later, "We will consider how to respond after carefully examining the ruling." Around 30 similar suits have been filed in at least 20 district courts across Japan, with the number of plaintiffs totalling about 12,000 as of the end of February, Kyodo news agency reported. A ruling by the Fukushima district court over a case involving nearly 4000 plaintiffs is expected to be handed down by the end of this year. Based on state guidelines, Tepco has been required to pay JPY100,000 a month to everyone who has evacuated in accordance with official orders, while offering a lump-sum payment of JPY80,000 to voluntary evacuees.