A Japanese court has ruled for the first time that the government bears responsibility for the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and ordered it and the plant operator to pay damages.
The Maebashi district court held the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) liable for failing to take preventative measures against the possibility of a tsunami like the one that hit the coastal nuclear power station six years ago this month.
Tepco has always been criticized for ignoring the threat posed by natural disasters to the Fukushima plant.
An estimated 80,000 evacuees fled the region around the plant. Nineteen plaintiffs who used to live in areas under evacuation orders were awarded compensation payments of between 750,000 yen and 3.5 million yen each, while 43 voluntary evacuees were granted awards of between 70,000 yen and 730,000 yen.
But the court ruled that the disaster could have been averted if government regulators had ordered Tepco to take preventive safety steps, Kyodo News reported. The ruling can be seen as a warning to the government and utilities that, in the case of nuclear power, preparations must always be made for the worst-case scenario, given the enormous damage a single accident can do. But the court found that government experts had in fact concluded in a 2002 report that there was a 20% chance of a magnitude 8.0 or greater natural disaster striking the area over the next 30 years.
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.
Around 30 similar suits have been filed in at least 20 district courts across Japan, lawyers said.
Both the government and TEPCO argued that the long-term estimate and the May 2008 tsunami study were not credible enough, continuing to insist that the massive tsunami was unexpected.
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 created to keep critical systems functioning in a blackout.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, told a press conference on Friday that the officials "will consider how to respond after carefully examining the ruling".