UPDATE3: Gov't, TEPCO found liable in Fukushima nuclear disaster for 1st time

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A court in Gunma Prefecture found Friday that negligence by the central government and plant operator contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011 -- the first ruling of its kind since the crisis following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The Maebashi District Court ruling, which awarded a total of 38.55 million yen ($340,000) in damages to 62 people who have fled Fukushima Prefecture including those who voluntarily evacuated, found that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. were negligent in preparing anti-tsunami steps.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said it was the first time a Japanese court had recognized such negligence played a part in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl, with the court rejecting the argument of the state and the operator that it was impossible to prevent the accident even if they had taken some measures.

The ruling was the first among a series of similar lawsuits filed by people who were forced to leave their hometowns after three reactors melted down at the plant operated by TEPCO, in the days after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

The court said the accident was caused by failure to cool nuclear fuel as water entered the turbine buildings from their air supply openings in the wake of the tsunami, crippling emergency switchboards there.

The trouble would have been "preventable" if the state and TEPCO had taken easy steps such as installing air supply openings at a higher position, the court said.

It also criticized TEPCO for having put more priority on "economic rationality" than on safety, adding the state should have used its regulatory powers to make TEPCO implement preventive measures.

The lawsuit was filed by a total of 137 plaintiffs, now relocated to Gunma and elsewhere. They sought a combined 1.5 billion yen -- 11 million yen each -- in damages for emotional distress.

The plaintiffs said they have lost their livelihoods and faced inconvenience for an extensive period, and the amount they receive under the current state compensation guidelines is not enough.

The plaintiffs included 76 people instructed to evacuate and 61 people who fled at their own discretion.

"Without the nuclear accident, we would have continued to have a calm daily life," said Sugie Tanji, 60, who has voluntarily evacuated from Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture to Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture.

The court has allowed Tanji to receive 360,000 yen in damages in total with her husband.

"It was extremely significant that (a court) has acknowledged the responsibility of the state," the lawyers for the plaintiffs said in a statement.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, said at a press conference later in the day, "We will consider how to respond after carefully examining the ruling."

Issues during the trial centered on whether the state and TEPCO could have foreseen the tsunami and whether the amount of TEPCO's compensation under state guidelines is sufficient.

The plaintiffs claimed the state and TEPCO could have foreseen tsunami over 10 meters high hitting the plant based on a 2002 government estimate that there was roughly a 20 percent chance of a magnitude-8-level tsunami-triggering earthquake occurring within the next 30 years.

The state and TEPCO argued they could not have foreseen what happened, and even if they had taken preventive measures against tsunami based on the long-term estimate, they could not have avoided the consequences.

Around 30 similar suits have been filed in at least 20 district courts across Japan, with the number of plaintiffs totaling about 12,000 as of the end of February, a group of lawyers said.

A ruling by the Fukushima District Court over a case involving nearly 4,000 plaintiffs is expected to be handed down by the end of this year.

Based on a state guideline, TEPCO has been required to pay 100,000 yen per month to every person who has evacuated in accordance with official orders, while offering a lump-sum payment of 80,000 yen to voluntary evacuees excluding children under 18 and expectant mothers, according to the operator.

==Kyodo

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