Backyard Trash

  The residents of Watari District in Fukushima City had their property showered with radioactive fallout after the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi NPP. If there had been just a few such victims in this disaster, it would have been clear that the nuclear industry, and the government that was ultimately responsible for nuclear safety, would have owed these people large financial settlements for the value of their property, their emotional hardship, their present and future lost income, and the full cost of relocating elsewhere. But there are a million victims at least, and TEPCO and the government barely have the cash to maintain their operations. Fair compensation will never come.
Instead, these residents now have insult added to injury. The contaminated soil that they have cleaned up on their own properties has nowhere to go. They have been told they cannot bury it (for the good reason of not contaminating groundwater), and since the government has no plans to remove it, they have to just cover it with vinyl and leave it on their own property. It seems the guilty parties have decided that they can wait a couple decades to see this problem resolve itself at no cost to themselves. They can just wait until these residents die or leave at their own expense.

A photo from The Mainichi showing radioactive soil
that residents have to store on their own

One might think that these affected residents need to stop being so meek and organize a proper American-style class action lawsuit. After all, there have been a lot of victories in American courts with big law firms working on contingency and gaining million and billion dollar settlements. Films like Erin Brokovich and The Insider show how this was done, but there is a big difference in the case of Japan’s nuclear catastrophe. Legal victories in America have been won against large corporations that had the means to settle and get back to business. The Erin Brokovich story tells of the suit against Pacific Gas and Electric Company over hexavalent chromium contamination. They settled for $333 million and carried on with their business. The story told by The Insider concluded with all fifty state governments suing Big Tobacco for medical costs. They won $249 billion, then the tobacco industry, realizing its heyday in the West was over, just moved and got busy making money in the emerging Asian market for nicotine.
These cases illustrated that it was possible to sue wealthy corporations, especially if you had governments on your side, as was the case with lawsuit against the tobacco industry. But even in America, famous for being such a great place for lawyers and litigation, it’s not so easy to sue the government. Lawyers are reluctant to take on cases that challenge national defense and energy policies. The record shows that there has been more success in suing corporations. To get compensation from the government, it has usually been necessary to go through the political process and win such victories as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This was achieved in 1990, too late for most victims. It was forty-eight years after workers, soldiers and citizens began to be exposed to radiation in The Manhattan Project, and later in the buildup of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
Thus the victims of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe cannot be blamed for their unwillingness to fight. The weakness of the legal system and the power of corporations in Japan are just parts of the problem they are up against. This tragedy shows that it is almost impossible to sue a government for past mistakes in national policy. Nonetheless, there is a movement to force public prosecutors to indict several individuals in TEPCO management for criminal negligence resulting in death and injury. Yet with or without convictions, the record of nuclear accidents shows that no society has the will or the ability to pay the costs of such a nuclear disaster, and this is one of the best arguments for shutting down the nuclear industry before another accident happens. And who really believes, pro-nukes included, that another accident will not happen within a decade or two?

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