Editorial: Victims of nuclear power plant accident file lawsuit over government inaction

Fourteen months ago, the Assistance for Children and Nuclear Disaster Victims Act became law. However, some residents of Fukushima Prefecture and voluntary evacuees still in other prefectures filed suit against the Japanese government on August 22, contending that the government has been neglecting the law and that even the law’s basic policies have not been formulated.

The plaintiffs are seeking one yen per person in damages, with their real aim to rouse the government from its inaction.

The spirit of the law is for the government to implement measures which reflect the views of the victims, whether they choose to live in or out of the evacuation area. Those who voluntarily evacuated from Fukushima Prefecture are also covered by this law, which means the right to live free of radiation exposure is recognized. The law also stipulates that special consideration be given to children and pregnant women.

The law clearly defines the responsibilities of the Japanese government, which include protecting people’s lives and property from nuclear disasters and addressing the impact to society for having promoted the nation’s nuclear energy policy.

However, a top-level bureaucrat who was overseeing this support act at the Reconstruction Agency used abusive language via a social networking service, making a mockery of the meetings attended by victims of the disaster. This raised questions about the attitude of government officials who should be taking the problems of the victims to heart.

In the first place, the law was jointly sponsored by lawmakers across all party lines and was unanimously adopted under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cannot argue that it has no connection to this law.

At the same time, there is a significant hurdle to overcome. In order to define the geographical areas to be covered by the law, a standard must be set for the level of radiation dose.

The law only refers to a “radiation dose that is higher than a certain standard.” The plaintiffs argue that this standard, which could greatly affect the amount of the government’s financial burden, should be one millisievert per year. If the one-millisievert standard is adopted, the areas to be covered would include eight prefectures.

This could further inflame harmful rumors about the safety of agricultural and other products from an even-broader area. It could also slow the return of evacuees to this region.

But one of the clauses of the law says that the danger of radiation to human health has not been fully elucidated scientifically. Based on the spirit of the law, it is reasonable to pursue relief measures over a wide area, such is the gravity of the nuclear accident.

With the passage of time, voluntary evacuees of the disaster are growing increasingly concerned about their uncertain future, including a guarantee of housing. We must not make light of mental health care for victims, either. Yoshihiro Kumasaka, a medical doctor and representative of a group which set up the “Yorisoi Hotline” (“Close Together Hotline”) to provide counseling services in the Tohoku district, has called for putting the law into practice. In an opinion piece he sent to the Chugoku Shimbun, Dr. Kumasaka said, “The earthquake disaster has all at once exposed the difficulties of life in the forms of unemployment, poverty, domestic violence and other problems.”

No matter how hard it may be to set a standard for the level of radiation dose, the central government is obligated to listen to the voices of the disaster victims following the enactment of the legislation.

The support act does not stipulate specific measures, precisely because the views of the victims and leaders of local municipalities should be considered. At the same time, these measures should be flexibly implemented to meet their needs.

Prior to the lawsuit, the agency said that it was working earnestly on basic policies. Now that the lawsuit has been filed, they have no choice but to resolve the matter in court. Can’t they move forward and present measures that could be implemented?

There is an urgent need to provide support for children’s lives and education when they are living apart from their families, under any circumstances, which includes those who evacuated from the designated evacuation zones. Let us return to the spirit of the law and give this serious thought.

(Originally published on August 24, 2013)