A nuclear power plant damaged in the 2011 Japanese tsunami that caused a meltdown at three reactors at Fukushima is slated to come back online after the governor of the Myagi prefecture greenlighted the resumption last week.
The decision comes on the heels of a ruling by a Japanese high court finding that the government and Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima plant, were negligent in their handling of the disaster, and ordered them to pay 1bn yen ($9.5m) in damages to thousands of residents for their lost livelihoods.
Following the Fukushima disaster, Japanese regulators developed stringent requirements for its nuclear industry, requiring a raft of safety upgrades for the 54 reactors that were shut down in the wake of the tsunami. The reactor at the Onagawa complex in Miyagi, some 140 kilometers Northwest of Fukushima, is only the tenth reactor to restart in Japan in the past nine years.
But Japan’s trust in nuclear power is still fragile, as the decision from the Sendai High Court shows.
In the ruling, the court said the government could have taken measures to protect the coastal Fukushima site, based on expert assessments that had been available in 2002, which indicated the possibility of a tsunami of more than 15 meters.
The ruling could open up the government to further damage claims. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated when three of the six reactors at the coastal Fukushima plant melted down and released a radioactive cloud after it was hit by the devastating tsunami, representing the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
While some people have returned home, areas close to the plant are still off limits.
The 3,550 plaintiffs in the case before the Sendai high court, one of eight such courts in Japan, had sought monthly compensation of about 50,000 yen ($470) per person until radiation levels subside to pre-disaster levels, seeking a total of 28bn yen ($265m).
The plaintiffs’ head lawyer, Izutaro Managi, hailed the ruling as a major victory, saying: “We ask the government to extend relief measures as soon as possible, not only for the plaintiffs but for all victims based on the damage they suffered.”
The government could appeal the case sometime this month.
In 2017, a lower court had ordered the government and Tepco to pay about half that amount to about 2,900 plaintiffs. But the ruling by Sendai’s high court is significant because it could set a legal precedent for dozens of similar lawsuits that have been filed across the country.
The Japanese government has long argued that it could not have prevented the tsunami or the nuclear accident, while Tepco says it has already paid any compensation that was ordered by the government. Last year, a Japanese court acquitted three former Tepco executives who had been accused of criminal negligence over their roles in the accident.
The 3,550 plaintiffs in the case had fled their homes in 2011 after the radiation disaster. Radiation that spewed from the plant’s melted down reactors contaminated the surrounding areas, forcing about 160,000 residents to evacuate at one point. More than 50,000 are still displaced because of lingering safety concerns. The plant is being decommissioned, a process expected to take decades.