TEPCO’s Fukushima Obligations: How to Remedy Damage to a Community

Four years ago today, an unexpectedly strong earthquake caused an unexpectedly large tsunami which caused a prettypredictable nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan.

I am not the one who scientifically determined that the tsunami-causing nuclear crisis was predictable. I am relying on an important source for this: TEPCO, the company whose nuclear power plant caused the crisis.

By Tara VanHo. You can follow Tara on twitter: @TaraVanHo

An internal report in 2008 warned TEPCO of the potential impact of a tsunami similar to the one experienced on 3/11/11. The company’s leadership – who were not responsible for conducting the simulations – dismissed the warning as “unrealistic.” Three years later, their arrogance proved deadly.

TEPCO’s approach to the threat of tsunamis at its now-infamous Daiichi nuclear power plant is replete with warnings and opportunities that could have mitigated the disaster. The company ignored each of these warnings and opportunities. It also engaged in a series of lies to regulatory agencies, including twice falsifying containment leak tests at Fukushima Daiichi. (For those wondering, TEPCO’s lies have not stopped. Two weeks ago, it belatedly disclosed increased radiation levels in waterleaked into the ocean.) 

Since 2011, the towns of Ookuma, Futaba, Namie, Tomioka, and Naraha, as well as portions of neighbouring Minamisōma and Katsurao have remained evacuated. All the cities I named, except Minamisōma, are part of Futaba-gun, a county I learned to love not just for its scenic rivers, fantastic hot springs, or unique pottery. Naraha was my home for two years, and its people my community. My friends, colleagues, and neighbours have now been scattered about Japan for four years.

The reality of what I lost that day pales in comparison to the people who took me into their lives. And yet, I still feel a very clear, distinct loss. It’s the loss of my community:  the inability to easily reach out to see how Katsumi, Kazumi and Shouta are doing; to attend worship in my old church; and to celebrate the Coming of Age day for my former students. I have lost a part of my history and a connection to those who helped make me who I am today.

I’m the lucky one, though. In addition to those killed by the earthquake and tsunami, the people in Futaba-gun and Minamisōma have lost their homes and their livelihoods.

Naraha is now readying for a return. Sort of. The town may never be the same because the community itself was damage. The diaspora was forced to begin new lives, establish new relationships, start new jobs and schools. The city has been reclassifiedas an “area where preparations should be made for the return of residents,” but people – particularly younger people – are reluctant to return.

It is difficult to redesign what was lost.

And yet, at least one reading of international human rights law suggests that’s exactly what TEPCO and Japan have an obligation to do: restore the towns and their sense of community.

Since this is a blog piece, I hope you’ll indulge my conclusion that Japan has breached its obligation to protect the population’s human by refusing to require TEPCO to adopt measures necessary to prevent the Daiichi disaster despiteknowing the risks posed. Similarly, since TEPCO’s due diligence predicted exactly the kind of damage that was done and yet it refused to take the necessary steps to protect the people surrounding the Daiichi plant, it, too, has failed in its human rights responsibilities as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These breaches entail an obligation to remedy and repair the damage.

But how do you reconstruct a community that has been destroyed?

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights provides guidance for Japan and TEPCO on the kinds of actions they should take. In Plan de Sanchez v. Guatemala, the Court recognized that when a community is victimized, reparations must be aimed at rebuilding that community. The Court ordered reparations including housing, infrastructural developments, health and education facilities and personnel, and improvements in “the infrastructure of the chapel in which the victims paid homage to those” killed as a result of the state’s actions. Perhaps most importantly, it also ordered the study and dissemination of the local Maya-Achí culture to the affected communities.

The people of Futaba-gun and Minamisōma are not indigenous peoples in the sense used in international law, but elements of their community were unique. As Naraha returns, it is time TEPCO and Japan adopted reparations aimed at repairing the communal damage.

Japan and TEPCO should be funding activities like Naraha’s taiko drum festival, Tomioka’s cherry blossom festival, traditionalsōma-yaki pottery classes, and Coming of Age celebrations (While Coming of Age Day is huge in Japan, in the area around the Daiichi plant traditional celebrations including horseback riding were ongoing when I was there in the early 2000s). As the nuclear fallout has damaged large sections of the local economy – which previously centered on agriculture, the power plants, and tourism – Japan and TEPCO should work with the communities to establishment employment plans that will allow young people to return to the region. They should also pay for the revitalization of sister-city visits so community members can establish meaningful links they once had, and promote their towns and culture overseas.

It is not enough to rebuild individual houses in the region, if those houses cannot sustain a community. TEPCO and Japan need to take actions aimed at repairing these communities.

Now, for a plea I normally would not make. Please share this post. I feel strongly that the redress needed for the Futaba-gun and Minamisōma residents will come only if the international community is engaged, ensuring Japan and TEPCO live up to its obligations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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