On March 17, the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture awarded ¥38.6m (US$342,000) to 62 Fukushima evacuees, far below the ¥1.5 billion the group had sought.1,2
The court ruled that negligence by the state contributed to the nuclear disaster and that the government should have used its regulatory powers to force TEPCO, who were also held liable in the court ruling, to take adequate preventive measures.2
The plaintiffs based their claim on a 2002 report by the government's Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion, which estimated that there was a 20% chance of a magnitude-8 earthquake occurring and triggering a powerful tsunami within the next 30 years. Citing the 2002 report, the Maebashi Court said "TEPCO was capable of foreseeing … that a large tsunami posed a risk to the facility and could possibly flood its premises and damage safety equipment, such as the backup power generators."3 The Court said TEPCO had put economic expediency ahead of safety.4
The plaintiffs further argued that TEPCO should have taken precautionary measures, including the building of breakwaters, based on calculations in a 2008 internal TEPCO report 'Tsunami Measures Unavoidable' that showed waves of over 10 meters could hit the Fukushima Daiichi plant.3
The suit was filed in the Maebashi District Court on behalf of 137 evacuees, including both forced and 'voluntary' evacuees. Only 62 were awarded damages, and they were awarded only a small fraction of the damages sought.1
Takehiro Matsuta, 38, one of the plaintiffs, said: "The ruling was one big step for my family, for those who evacuated from Fukushima to Gunma, and for tens of thousands of earthquake victims nationwide." But he called the payout "disappointing" as his child, who was three years old at the time of the nuclear disaster, was not granted compensation. "My wife and I are struggling every day, but it's my child who suffers the most."3
Koichi Muramatsu, a plaintiff in another suit, said: "The money is not a problem. Even if it's ¥1,000 or ¥2,000, it's fine. We just want the government to admit their responsibility. Our ultimate goal is to make the government admit their responsibility and remind them not to repeat the same accident."1
A TEPCO spokesperson said: "We again apologize from the bottom of our hearts for giving great troubles and concerns to the residents of Fukushima and other people in society by causing the accident of the nuclear power station of our company. Regarding today's judgment given at the Maebashi local court today, we would like to consider how to respond to this after examining the content of the judgment."1
Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority said it will hold an emergency meeting and will "weigh a response after having read the ruling closely".4
Azby Brown from the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, and a volunteer with the independent radiation-monitoring group Safecast, said he expected the government and TEPCO to appeal the court ruling "and for this to drag on for years."1
The court ruling sets an important precedent. It is the first of about 30 lawsuits to be brought by close to 12,000 former Fukushima residents in 18 prefectures.1,2
Efforts to restore community life failing
The number of evacuees (forced and 'voluntary') from the Fukushima nuclear disaster peaked at 164,865 in May 2012. By May 2016, the number was 84,289.5
In early March 2017, officials said about 80,000 people were still dislocated. But the number is greater if including those who have permanently settled elsewhere. Japanese public broadcaster NHK noted that the estimate of 80,000 evacuees includes 17,781 residents of five municipalities near the Fukushima plant ‒ but that number swells to 42,030 if including people who moved into public housing or acquired new homes in other areas.7
A total of 35,503 evacuees from the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima were still living in temporary makeshift homes as of January 2017.8
Efforts to restore community life in numerous towns are failing. In five municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture ‒ Tamura, Minamisoma, Kawauchi, Katsurao, and Naraha ‒ only 13% of evacuees have returned home after evacuation orders were lifted partly or entirely from April 2014 through July 2016.9 As of January 2017, only about 2,500 people out of a combined population of around 19,460 had returned.9
Of the 11 municipalities within the originally designated evacuation area, five have seen evacuation orders fully or partially lifted since April 2014.10 Evacuation orders will soon be lifted for four more municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture ‒ Namie, Kawamata, Iitate, and Tomioka. About 32,000 residents will be affected but the same pattern is likely to be repeated: only a small percentage will return.11 Reasons cited for the reluctance to return to these municipalities include concerns over the lack of medical services, safety concerns regarding nuclear power and radiation, and the lack of shops, public transportation and other services essential to everyday life.10
Mainichi Japan reported in September 2016 that only 28% of school-children are attending their original schools in five towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture following the lifting of evacuation orders ‒ and some of those children face long commutes to travel from their current accommodation to their old schools.12 The children attended temporary schools at evacuation sites after the March 2011 triple-disaster. With the closure of the temporary schools, the three options are returning to their hometowns, commuting to their former schools, or attending schools at evacuation sites.
'Difficult to return' zones
Areas still subject to restrictions are divided into three zones: 'difficult to return' zones (annual radiation doses exceeding 50 millisieverts / year), 'restricted residency' zones (20‒50 mSv/year) and 'evacuation order cancellation preparation' zones (<20 mSv/year). The national government aims to end all restrictions in the latter two categories as soon as possible.
About 24,000 people were evacuated from zones now classified as 'difficult to return'. The government intends to pay for the decontamination of certain areas within these zones (perhaps as little as 5% of the area) so former residents can return.11 Mainichi Japan reported in December 2016 that the government planned to allocated ¥30 billion (US$267m; €248m) to partially decontaminate these zones, once again transferring TEPCO's responsibilities onto taxpayers.13 The Citizens Nuclear Information Center noted that the policy runs against the basic law that demands that decontamination be performed at the expense of the entity that caused the contamination.14
Restrictions will likely remain in the difficult-to-return zones for another five years or so13 ‒ and presumably for longer in areas where no attempt is made at decontamination.
Housing assistance gap and gender gap
Fukushima Prefecture is set to terminate its free housing service to thousands of voluntary evacuees at the end of March 2017. As of October 2016, 26,600 people were receiving Fukushima Prefecture's free housing service under the Disaster Relief Act after they voluntarily evacuated from the nuclear disaster.15 A little more than half of them are now living outside the Prefecture.
Nine of Japan's 47 prefectures are planning to provide some assistance to support voluntary evacuees.15 However the level of assistance will vary greatly; some will be generously supported, some will receive little and others none at all. Evacuees faced dislocation after the Fukushima disaster, they face dislocation as the Fukushima Prefecture's support comes to an end at the end of March, and they will face further dislocation as support from other prefectures is wound down.
Voluntary isn't really the word: none of the 'voluntary' evacuees wanted to evacuate. In many cases, they were parents ‒ usually mothers ‒ who weren't prepared to allow their children to be exposed to Fukushima radiation. As Kendra Ulrich from Greenpeace Japan notes:16
"Fukushima-impacted women were faced with significantly greater obstacles in coping with the impacts of the disaster according to their own wishes due to a yawning gender gap in Japanese society. In fact, in the most recent ranking of the 34 OECD countries on gender wage gap, Japan was one of the bottom three with only South Korea and Estonia ranking lower.
"Despite these financial and social barriers, many women separated from or even divorced husbands who chose to stay in the contaminated region. They evacuated with only their children, in an effort to protect them.
"But they continue to face a greater risk of poverty and are more vulnerable to financial pressures. And it is just these financial vulnerabilities that the Abe Government is exploiting now. Thousands of Fukushima survivors from outside the designated zones will be stripped of their housing support in March 2017.
"The government is also moving forward with lifting evacuation orders in some of the more heavily contaminated areas in March and April of this year, even though radiation levels still far exceed long-term decontamination targets. Those from areas where orders are lifted will lose compensation payments next year.
"According to the most recent government data from October 2016, thousands of those losing housing support this month had nowhere else to go. They are at risk of homelessness. This means that some people may be forced to return to contaminated areas, even though they do not want to."
1. Motoko Rich, 17 March 2017, 'Japanese Government and Utility Are Found Negligent in Nuclear Disaster', www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/world/asia/japan-fukushima-nuclear-disaster-t...
2. Justin McCurry, 17 March 2017, 'Japanese government liable for negligence in Fukushima disaster', www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/17/japanese-government-liable-neglige...
3. Daisuke Kikuchi, 17 March 2017, 'In first, government and Tepco found liable for Fukushima disaster', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/17/national/crime-legal/first-governme...
4. Nikkei Asian Review, 18 March 2017, 'Ruling against Tepco sets high bar for nuclear safety', http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Ruling-against-T...
5. Fukushima Prefecture, 5 Dec 2016, 'Steps for Revitalization in Fukushima', http://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/uploaded/attachment/195697.pdf
7. NHK, 13 March 2017, 'Evacuees not Counted by Fukushima Govt.', https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/editors/3/evacueesnotcountedbyfu...
8. Jiji Press, 11 March 2017, '35,000 evacuees still in temporary housing', http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0003565655
9. Mainichi Japan, 29 Jan 2017, 'Only 13% of evacuees in 5 Fukushima municipalities have returned home as of Jan.', http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170129/p2g/00m/0dm/047000c
10. Jiji Press, 13 March 2017, 'Another reduction coming for Fukushima nuclear evacuation area', www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/13/national/another-reduction-coming-f...
11. Chikako Kawahara and Osamu Uchiyama, 28 Feb 2017, 'SIX YEARS AFTER: 4 more districts in Fukushima set to be declared safe to return to', The Asahi Shimbun, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201702280051.html
12. Mainichi Japan, 10 Sept 2016, 'Only 28% of Fukushima children returning to former schools', http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20160910/p2a/00m/0na/001000c
13. Mainichi Japan, 19 Dec 2016, 'Public funds earmarked to decontaminate Fukushima's 'difficult-to-return' zone', http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20161219/p2a/00m/0na/015000c
14. CNIC, 2 Feb 2017, 'Difficult-to-return Zone to Be Decontaminated at National Expense', Nuke Info Tokyo No.176, www.cnic.jp/english/?p=3669
15. Mainichi Japan, 6 Jan 2017, 'Voluntary nuclear evacuees to face housing assistance gap', http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20170106/p2a/00m/0na/007000c
16. Kendra Ulrich, 7 March 2017, 'Fukushima nuclear disaster and the violation of women's and children's human rights', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/fukushim...