Victims of the worst nuclear crisis in a quarter-century have filed about 20 lawsuits against plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., according to the company. That compares with the several hundred suits filed against BP within weeks of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including the near-finalized settlement of a class-action suit that will pay 120,000 plaintiffs upward of $7.8 billion. BP also paid out about $6.2 billion to victims via a neutral claims settlement process, administered by a lawyer appointed by the Obama administration.
Victims and lawyers here in Japan say the dearth of nuclear-related lawsuits reflects both a national mind-set — a distaste for confrontation — and a stunted judicial system that doesn’t allow for class-action cases or punitive damages. Japanese people think the court system is more likely to deliver frustration than vengeance, and jobless evacuees who urgently need money have little appetite for long trials with uncertain outcomes.
Instead, the vast majority of victims of the Fukushima accident turn to one of two other options, one led by Tepco, the other by the central government — the two institutions most often blamed for the nuclear accident.
More than nine of 10 evacuees who say the disaster harmed them have taken their claims directly to Tepco. Those who don’t want to deal with Tepco or who reject the company’s compensation offer can head to a government-created mediation center, which was established by law after the nuclear accident.
Neither route, legal experts say, offers victims much leverage. Typical of a country that sees itself as uniformly middle-class, payouts are adequate but rarely ample. Tepco’s average payout to individuals is $24,000, according to company data. That figure, though, is certain to grow as claimants return a second and even third time with more evidence of damage, including property losses.
Without the threat of legal action, said Hiroyuki Kawai, a Tokyo-based lawyer handling one of the few lawsuits filed against Tepco, “the state and companies can take advantage of victims.” Tepco spokesman Hiroki Kawamata said that is not the case.
For victims who want to file lawsuits, options are limited. That’s because of a special Japanese nuclear-accident law, drafted 51 years ago, that limits liability to the plant operator, preventing claimants from targeting, say, reactor manufacturers such as Toshiba or General Electric. The law also prevents individuals from being held liable, effectively blocking suits in this case against executives or workers at Tepco.
The law, experts say, is designed to maintain order during mass-scale nuclear disasters. But it also reinforces a feeling of nationwide blamelessness, a notion echoed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in March, when he said no individuals should be held liable for the accident.