Japanese court rules TEPCO responsible for evacuee's suicide after nuclear crisis

Japanese court rules TEPCO responsible for evacuee's suicide after nuclear crisis

TOKYO, Aug. 26 (Xinhua) -- The operator of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex was ordered by a Japanese court on Tuesday to pay damages to the family of an evacuee who committed suicide after the disaster in March 2011.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in an unprecedented case was ordered by the Fukushima District Court to pay compensation totaling 49 million yen (472,000 U.S. dollars) to the relatives of Hamako Watanabe, 58, who killed herself by dousing herself in gasoline and setting herself on fire, following her forcible evacuation after the nuclear disaster at the Daiichi facility in 2011 that continues to concern the world.

Although Mikio Watanabe, 64, the victim's husband and three children had initially sought damages of 91 million yen, Mr. Watanabe told local media after the court's ruling that he was " satisfied."

Presiding judge of the Fukushima District Court, Naoyuki Shiomi, told TEPCO in handing down his ruling that it should have been able to anticipate that displaced residents forced to evacuate the area because of the triple-meltdowns at the plant would likely suffer from stress and that this could lead to cases of suicide.

Shiomi said that the mental distress that Watanabe must have been suffering from was "huge" as she had no idea when she and her husband would be able to return to their home in Kawamata town, 40 km from the plant, where they ran a chicken farm.

Watanabe and her family were evacuated indefinitely to an apartment in the city of Fukushima in June after Kawamata was officially designated an evacuation zone on April 22, 2011. But Watanabe returned to her family home in the evacuation zone on July 1, where she doused herself in gasoline and set fire to herself.

According to the indictment, Watanabe's suicide was due to her falling into a deep state of depression after being evacuated, as she had lost her family home, job, friends and ties with her local community.

TEPCO said in a statement following the verdict that it was sorry for the accident and prayed that Watanabe had found peace.

During the trial, the embattled utility admitted that the nuclear accident, caused by an earthquake-triggered tsunami knocking out the Daiichi plant's key cooling facilities leading to multiple core meltdowns at the facility, resulting in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, had been responsible for causing Watanabe severe psychological anguish.

Tuesday's ruling marks the first time a court has ordered TEPCO to pay damages and could pave the way for dozens if not hundreds of more cases of suicide compensation, causally related to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Previously, TEPCO has dealt with cases of nuclear disaster- related suicides in out-of-court settlements.

The latest government statistics showed that the number of suicides in Fukushima Prefecture that can be attributed to the disaster stood at 56 between June 2011 and July this year, with the figure rising. In neighboring Iwate Prefecture, the figure stood at 30 and in Miyagi 37, although civic groups related to suicides in the disaster-hit areas claim that the figures are far higher than those that have been officially reported.

The groups claim that the numbers could continue to rise as some 125,000 people still remain displaced from their homes three years after the disaster, due to still harmful levels of radioactive contamination in the evacuation zones, and calls for the government from the groups, plaintiffs and their attorneys, as well as the wider public, to do more to collect veridical data and hold TEPCO accountable, are becoming more vociferous.