Photo/Illutration Lawyers for the plaintiffs hold a news conference on Feb. 19 after the Tokyo High Court found the central government equally liable in connection with the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. (Yuta Ogi)

Yet another high court has found the central government as liable as Tokyo Electric Power Co. for not taking steps to prevent the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

The Tokyo High Court's Feb. 19 decision was based on the issuance of a report that pointed to the possibility of a large tsunami striking the Fukushima area.

It determined that the central government's failure to act on the report's findings was “illegal” and ordered it and TEPCO to pay a total of about 280 million yen ($2.7 million) to 43 plaintiffs now living in Chiba Prefecture.

The plaintiffs moved to the prefecture next to Tokyo after they were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the nuclear accident triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The Chiba District Court ruled in September 2017 that only TEPCO was legally liable to pay compensation, so the plaintiffs appealed to the high court.

About 30 lawsuits have been filed around Japan seeking compensation from TEPCO and the central government by plaintiffs who argue that their lives were thrown into turmoil after they were forced to evacuate due to the nuclear accident.

Of the 14 rulings already handed down in district courts, there is an even split in whether the central government was liable.

The Feb. 19 ruling was the third by a high court. The Sendai High Court in September 2020 found the central government liable, but another presiding judge in the Tokyo High Court handed down a ruling in January that did not recognize responsibility on the part of the central government.

The Supreme Court is expected to eventually make a ruling covering all of the high court cases.

At issue once again was the reliability of a long-term assessment of the probability of major earthquakes released by the science ministry’s Headquarters for Earthquake Research Promotion in July 2002. The report pointed out that Fukushima Prefecture could be hit by a massive tsunami.

While the Chiba District Court ruled that the accuracy of the assessment was not very high, the Tokyo High Court ruled “there was a reasonable level of scientific reliability” that was equal to the findings of the Japan Society of Civil Engineers (JSCE).

That was vastly different from the Tokyo High Court ruling in January which found inconsistencies between the assessment and the JSCE findings.

The latest ruling went on to state that the central government, armed with that information, could have had about a year after the report was released to instruct TEPCO to implement measures to prevent an accident.

The high court went on to point out that construction of a coastal embankment and waterproofing of important equipment at the nuclear plant could have been carried out in the seven and a half years preceding the earthquake and tsunami disaster. If those steps had been taken then, the total loss of electric power needed to cool the nuclear reactors could have been avoided.

Given those factors, the high court said the central government’s failure to exercise its regulatory authority was “an illegal act.”

In calculating compensation, the Tokyo High Court concurred with the Chiba District Court and acknowledged the psychological stress suffered as well as the effect of losing the foundations of livelihoods on the part of the evacuees.

In addition to compensation lawsuits, criminal charges had been sought against three former TEPCO executives, but the Tokyo District Court in September 2019 ruled they were not guilty. That verdict has been appealed to the Tokyo High Court.

(This article was compiled from reports by Eri Niiya and Senior Staff Writer Eisuke Sasaki.)