Photo/IllutrationLawyers and others show banners in Maebashi on March 17 after the ruling. One of the banners reads, “(The court) acknowledges the government’s responsibility for compensation." (Hiroki Endo)

MAEBASHI--A court here on March 17 held the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. accountable for the Fukushima nuclear disaster and ordered them to pay compensation to evacuees.

The ruling by the Maebashi District Court was the first in a series of group lawsuits over the nuclear accident.

The court ordered the government and TEPCO to pay a total of 38.55 million yen ($340,000) to 62 plaintiffs who evacuated to Gunma Prefecture after the disaster started to unfold at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.

The group of 137 plaintiffs had demanded 11 million yen each in compensation.

The court accepted most of the plaintiffs’ arguments about how the government and TEPCO failed to prevent the triple meltdown at the plant.

The plaintiffs pointed out that TEPCO in May 2008 obtained an estimate of a tsunami as high as 15.7 meters that could hit the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

A wave around that height did hit the plant on March 11, 2011, knocking out power and leading to the reactor meltdowns.

The court said if the utility had installed emergency diesel electric generators on higher ground, it could have prevented the nuclear disaster.

The court also said it was possible for the government to predict the tsunami.

In its long-term estimate announced in July 2002, the government said the probability of an earthquake striking in the Japan Trench off the coast of northeastern Japan, including the sea area off the Fukushima No. 1 plant, was “about 20 percent within 30 years.”

The magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake spawned the tsunami that devastated coastal areas of the Tohoku region, including the nuclear plant.

If the government had used its regulatory powers to make TEPCO take countermeasures, such as installing seawalls, against such an event, the nuclear disaster could have been avoided, the ruling said.

The government and TEPCO argued that the long-term estimate and the May 2008 tsunami estimate were not established facts.

They also said the tsunami on March 11, 2011, was much larger than anticipated, making it impossible to prevent the nuclear accident.

Another point of dispute was whether TEPCO was paying a reasonable amount in compensation to evacuees based on intermediate guidelines compiled by a government screening panel.

TEPCO currently pays 100,000 yen a month to each person who was living in government-designated evacuation zones around the nuclear plant. The utility has also paid 40,000 yen to 720,000 yen to each person who lived outside the evacuation zones but evacuated “voluntarily.”

The plaintiffs argued that guidelines are overly simplistic and do not take into account all the damages the evacuees have suffered.

TEPCO argued that the intermediate guidelines are reasonable. It said that even if voluntary evacuees experienced anxieties or a sense of crisis over radiation exposure, their legal rights have not been infringed upon.

More than 40 percent of the plaintiffs are voluntary evacuees.

About 30 similar lawsuits involving about 12,000 people have been filed throughout the country.