TOKYO — The Japanese government and the electric utility that operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were negligent in not preventing the meltdowns in 2011 that forced thousands of people to flee the area, a district court in eastern Japan ruled on Friday.
It was the first time that a court determined that both the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, and the government bore responsibility for the nuclear disaster that followed a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The decision could influence dozens of similar lawsuits filed by close to 12,000 evacuated residents living across the country.
According to Japanese news reports of the ruling by the Maebashi District Court in Gunma Prefecture, the court said that the disaster, considered the worst nuclear calamity since Chernobyl in 1986, was “predictable” and that it was “possible to prevent the accident.”
The court ordered the government and TEPCO to pay damages totaling about $335,000 to 62 residents who were evacuated from the towns around the Fukushima plant and who relocated to Gunma. Each was awarded a different amount, but the total worked out to an average of $5,400 per person.
In their lawsuit, 137 former residents had sued for damages of about $97,000 per person, and the court awarded damages to half the plaintiffs. About half of them had left on government evacuation orders while the other half had decided to leave on their own. Each case was evaluated individually.
The court weighed whether TEPCO and the government had paid adequate damages to the nearly 160,000 people who evacuated from the towns around Fukushima. About 90,000 people have returned or settled in other places, and TEPCO has already paid about $621 billion in compensation.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said that the central government and TEPCO should have foreseen the possibility of a tsunami of the magnitude that hit the plant and that they should have done more to protect the plant.
The March 11, 2011, meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, which is on the eastern coast of Japan, occurred when 32-foot waves breached the power station’s protective sea walls, flooding buildings and destroying diesel-powered electricity generators that were designed to keep critical systems functioning in a blackout.
TEPCO did not deny responsibility in a statement on Friday.
“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,” Isao Ito, a spokesman, said. “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.”
Yoshihide Suga, chief Cabinet minister to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told reporters that the government had yet to see the details of the ruling.