Japan’s atomic power establishment is in shock following the court ruling on Friday that found the state and the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant liable for failing to take preventive measures against the tsunami that crippled the facility.
The reason for the shock is the ruling has wide-ranging implications for Japan’s entire nuclear power industry and the efforts to restart reactors throughout the country.
Judges in the Maebashi District Court in Gunma prefecture ruled that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the government were aware of the earthquake and tsunami risks to the Fukushima Daiichi plant prior to the 2011 triple reactor meltdown, but failed to take preventative measures.
The decision was welcomed by the 137 Fukushima citizens who filed the lawsuit in 2014. What needs to be remembered is a further 28 civil and criminal lawsuits in 18 prefectures across Japan are pending. They involve more than 10,000 citizens and include a shareholder claim seeking compensation of 5.5 trillion yen (US$49 billion).
Tepco is already a de facto bankrupt, has been effectively nationalized and now faces the unprecedented challenges of how to remove three melted reactors at the Fukushima plant.
Six years after the disaster it still faces unanswered questions about the precise causes of the accident, questions that have generated public opposition to Tepco restarting reactors at another plant in Kashiwazki-kariwa in Niigata prefecture, on the opposite coastline to Fukushima.
Beside the court ruling being yet another blow to Tepco’s efforts to recover from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the judgement will be highly disruptive to plans by the government and utilities to restart nuclear reactors in Japan.
Perhaps no surprise then that Japan’s nuclear regulator is holding an emergency session this week.
In the court ruling, the judges found that science-based evidence of major risks to the nuclear plant was “foreseen” but ignored and not acted upon by Japan’s government and Tepco.
The evidence included a 2002 government assessment that concluded there was a 20% risk of a magnitude 8 or greater earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan within 30 years. This includes the sea bed area off the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Further, the plaintiffs cited a 2008 internal Tepco report ‘Tsunami Measures Unavoidable’ which included the likelihood of a potential 15.7 meter tsunami hitting the Fukushima nuclear site.
The court ruled that 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.
While the judges in Gunma prefecture have concluded that ignoring evidence of risk can have devastating consequences, that does not seem to be the approach of the nuclear utilities or the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).
Over the last four years, the NRA has demonstrated a tendency to ignore evidence of risks to nuclear plants that have made applications to restart reactors shut down after the Fukushima disaster, and to bend to the demands of the nuclear power companies and the government.
A total of 26 reactors have applied for NRA review, of which seven have passed and four more will likely be approved this year.
In each case, the NRA has failed to apply a robust approach to assessing risks. It has chose to screen out seismic faults that threaten nuclear plants, failed to follow recommendations from international safety guidelines, and accepted selective evidence on volcanic risks.
In the case of the three forty-year old reactors at Takahama and Mihama, the NRA approved the reactors, while granting the utility an exemption from demonstrating that the reactors primary circuit can meet the 2013 post Fukushima revised safety guidelines, until a later date.
All of these safety issues have the potential when things go wrong — see Fukushima — to lead to severe accidents, including reactor core meltdown.
The Gunma court judgement will play a significant role in challenging Japan’s current approach to nuclear safety regulation.
District courts have issued injunctions against reactor restarts in Fukui prefecture, and in a historic ruling in March 2016 a court in Shiga prefecture ordered the immediate shutdown of the Takahama 3 and 4 reactors.
An appeal court is scheduled to rule on the above in the coming weeks and while it is anticipated that the reactor owner Kansai Electric will likely win, the prospects of further legal action remains.
Next month, for example, the former deputy chair of the NRA, Kunihiko Shimazaki will testify in a lawsuit against the operation of the Ohi reactors owned by Kansai Electric in western Japan.
Shimazeki, emeritus professor of seismology at Tokyo University and the only seismologist to have been an NRA commissioner, has challenged the formulas used by the regulator in computing the scale of earthquakes, which he believes underestimates potential seismic impact by factor of 3.5.
Last July the NRA dismissed Professor Shimazeki’s evidence.
Six years after the start of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, only 3 of Japan’s reactors are currently operating out of the 54 available in 2011.
For any business that runs the risk of its principal cash-generating asset being shut down at any point and for an extended period through legal challenges, the future does not look bright — unless you are granted approval to disregard the evidence.
The utilities are hemorrhaging money and therefore run the risk of following the same path as Tepco prior to 2011 in prioritizing cost savings over safety.
Such an approach directly led to the bankruptcy of Tepco, one the worlds largest power companies, and liabilities of at least 21 trillion yen.
The nuclear industry and current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe understand that to allow robust evidence of safety risks, in particular seismic, to determine the future of operation of reactors would mean the end of nuclear power in Japan.
Citizens from Fukushima with their lawyers and now supported by the judges, have moved Japan one step closer to that eventual scenario.
Shaun Burnie is a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany. He has worked on nuclear issues worldwide for more than three decades, including since 1991 on Japan’s nuclear policy. firstname.lastname@example.org