Legal woes mount for Japan's Tepco

A man walks past Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO)'s logo at the company headquarters in Tokyo in this July 30, 2012 file photo.
A man walks past Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO)'s logo at the company headquarters in Tokyo in this July 30, 2012 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

They include criminal and civil suits and 2008 report warning of need for tsunami measures

IWAKI • Four-and-a-half years after the Fukushima disaster, and as Japan tentatively restarts nuclear power elsewhere, the legal challenges are mounting for the crippled plant's operator.

They include a judge's forced disclosure of a 2008 internal document prepared for managers at Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) warning of a need for precautions against an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe.

Also, class actions against Tepco and the government now have more plaintiffs than any previous Japanese contamination suit and, overruling reluctant prosecutors, criminal charges have been levelled against former Tepco executives for failing to take measures to prevent the 2011 meltdowns and explosions.

Radiation from the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 forced 160,000 people from their homes and destroyed businesses, fisheries and agriculture.

The criminal and civil legal cases do not threaten financial ruin for Tepco, which is now backstopped by Japanese taxpayers and faces far bigger costs to decommission the Fukushima plant and clean up the surrounding areas.

Rather, the cases could further increase opposition to nuclear restarts - which consistently beats support by about two-to-one - as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government pushes to restore nuclear to Japan's energy mix to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuel.

The biggest class action, with 4,000 plaintiffs, seeks to dramatically increase Tepco's liability by proving negligence under Japan's civil law, rather than simply proving harm and seeking compensation, said lead attorney Izutaro Managi. Japan recently approved increasing the amount of compensation payments through a government-run fund to 7 trillion yen (S$79.2 billion).

A shareholder lawsuit, filed in March 2012, seeks to establish responsibility for the disaster and demands 5.5 trillion yen in damages from current and former executives. A verdict is not expected for at least a year.

Tepco maintains that the severity of the 9.0-magnitude quake and 13m wave on March 11, 2011, which crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, could not have been predicted.

But a document introduced as evidence in the shareholders' suit after a judge forced Tepco to produce it, appears to challenge that.

Mr Hiroyuki Kawai, lead attorney in the suit, said the report titled Tsunami Measures Unavoidable and dated September 2008, which called for Tepco to prepare for a worse tsunami than it previously assumed, was "prime evidence that Tepco recognised the need for tsunami measures".

"This is likely to become a long battle where lawsuits go on for several decades or half a century," said Dr Shunichi Teranishi, a professor emeritus of environmental economics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, comparing it to the Minamata mercury poisoning disaster in the 1950s, where lawsuits continue to be filed to this day. REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'Legal woes mount for Japan's Tepco'. Print Edition | Subscribe