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Landmark Court Ruling In Japan Holds Government Accountable For 2011 Nuclear Meltdown


The Japanese government and a nuclear power plant operator have appealed a landmark court ruling. The ruling holds them responsible for the country's worst ever nuclear accident. The 2011 Fukushima meltdown was triggered by a huge earthquake and tsunami. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, plaintiffs are concerned that justice is being delayed once again.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Cheering broke out outside the high court in the city of Sendai, about 60 miles north of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant last month. To many people's surprise, the court's ruling held the central government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company - or TEPCO, which runs the plant - equally responsible for the accident. Plaintiffs argued that scientists had warned the government in 2002 that a major tsunami could hit the area. The court said in its scathing verdict that the government failed to take action.

TAKASHI NAKAJIMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The government, despite its position as regulator, just let TEPCO do as it pleased and let it put off safety measures. It was gross negligence, and it was an attitude unbefitting a regulatory agency."

That was Takashi Nakajima paraphrasing the court's verdict. He's a leader among the nearly 3,600 plaintiffs in the case. The Sendai court ordered the government and TEPCO to pay them $9.6 million in compensation, double what a lower court had ruled three years ago. Many people in Nakajima's community near Fukushima fled their homes. He says he filed the lawsuit basically just to say, give me back my former life.

NAKAJIMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Imagine how you would feel," he says, "if suddenly you get into a situation where you can never go back to your hometown because there's a risk of radiation."

Nakajima runs a supermarket, but he says that fears about radiation in waters near Fukushima make it impossible to sell the local fish in which he used to take such pride.

NAKAJIMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The fishermen eat them because they've been eating them for a long time," he says, "and they're tasty. But their sons and daughters-in-law tell them that their grandchildren should not eat them. This is a situation which divides many families."

Judges in the Sendai verdict appear to have been especially sympathetic to such hardships. Eri Osaka, a law professor at Toyo University in Tokyo, explains.

ERI OSAKA: (Through translator) The Sendai High Court judges actually visited the area at issue in the trial before the decision was made. It's very unusual that judges truly understand what hardships the victims are experiencing.

KUHN: Some plaintiffs in similar lawsuits have not been as fortunate as Nakajima and have lost. Professor Masafumi Yokemoto, a professor of environmental policy at Osaka City University, says the Sendai verdict could change that.

MASAFUMI YOKEMOTO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "This is the first time a decision recognizing the government's full responsibility has been made at the high court level," he says, "although it was partly recognized by a lower court. It's very significant, and it'll clearly influence future decisions."

That's why many observers were not surprised when the government and TEPCO appealed the verdict on Tuesday. Plaintiff Takashi Nakajima hopes that the Sendai court ruling will eventually pave the way for the shutdown of all dangerous nuclear power plants in Japan. But whether or not the ruling stands will now be up to Japan's Supreme Court to decide.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.