The Fukushima District Court has ruled that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) could have taken safety precautions that might have prevented the devastating nuclear meltdown that followed a 2011 tsunami. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of area residents whose careers and home lives were disrupted by radiation and cleanup efforts, but this latest ruling concerns the largest group — some 3,800 plaintiffs — and awards them $500 million yen, or about $4.5 million dollars.
This isn’t the first ruling in favor of Fukushima survivors. A March decision handed down in the Maebashi District Court divided $38 million yen amongst 62 plaintiffs, and a September ruling distributed $376 million yen amongst 45 plaintiffs. TEPCO has repeatedly tried to argue in all these cases that a tsunami as large as the one that struck Fukushima was impossible to predict. However, prosecutors counter that point by noting that TEPCO could have moved its backup generators from the basement to a higher floor prior to the disaster, but it hadn’t undertaken those bare minimum precautions despite 1 in 5 chances of some kind of tsunami ocurring.
Plaintiffs may be somewhat disappointed despite the victory. They had pushed for a monthly stipend of $55,000 yen, or almost $500 a month, until radiation levels subside to where they were prior to the meltdown. That could take decades. Meanwhile, only a handful of elderly residents have returned since the evacuation order was lifted in 2015. Even fewer parents and young professionals have been willing to take the risk of going home. It’s hard to blame those among the original 50,000 evacuees for being reluctant to return. Infrastructure is still battered. Radiation levels at the plant itself continue to churn and spike.
Still, the government has started threatening thousands of survivors with lost housing subsidies if they don’t go back to Fukushima. So while the $500 million yen compensation is certainly a win, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions of yen TEPCO is spending on containing the destroyed plant, and the amount each plaintiff will receive is just a fraction of what they’ve lost.