UN expert says Japan should do more for Fukushima evacuees

TOKYO (AP) — A United Nations human rights expert urged Japan's government on Friday to provide evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster with more support, including housing, jobs and other needs, regardless of whether they fled forcibly or not.

Wrapping up an investigation of the evacuees' human rights conditions, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary said Japan has adequate laws to protect internally displaced people. They include a nuclear disaster compensation law that requires the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, to cover damages, and other government-led revitalization and reconstruction programs. But she said they have not been effectively used to address the vulnerability of the evacuees.

“Those laws should not remain just laws on the books, but they should be implemented,” she said. “Unfortunately, because they are not fully implemented, to a certain extent, this explains the proliferation of litigation against TEPCO and the government.”

Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant melted after a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, knocked out cooling systems, releasing large amounts of radiation and displacing more than 160,000 people at one point. About 30,000 people remain displaced in and outside of Fukushima.

Thousands of people have filed about 30 lawsuits demanding compensation from both the government and TEPCO for the loss of livelihoods and communities because of the disaster. The Supreme Court in July dismissed four lawsuits, saying the government cannot be held liable because the damage from the tsunami that hit the plant could not have been prevented even if measures had been taken.

Jimenez-Damary said the evacuees have received unequal treatment depending on whether they were forced to leave no-go zones or left voluntarily. Voluntary evacuees are seen as having left unnecessarily and are excluded from TEPCO compensation and many other government support measures.

“The categorization of forced evacuees and voluntary evacuees, especially when it comes to receiving support and assistance, should therefore be dropped in practice,” she said, adding that the discrimination has “no justification under international law.”

She said she was very concerned about the termination in 2017 of housing support for voluntary evacuees in Fukushima that led to the prefectural government filing a lawsuit against people who remained in dorms for government employees despite an order to leave.

Jimenez-Damary, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights of internally displaced persons, met with Japanese officials, experts, human rights organizations and evacuees in Tokyo, Fukushima, Kyoto and Hiroshima during her Sept. 26-Oct. 7 visit to Japan. Her preliminary report is expected early next week, followed by a full report to be issued in June 2023.

She acknowledged efforts by the central and local governments to address the vulnerabilities of evacuees, but said, “I would like to stress that there has to be an improvement.”

Jobless rates among working-age evacuees exceed 20%, substantially higher than the national average of 3%, she said.

Jimenez-Damary also noted “considerable concern about the continuing effect of radiation exposure, especially to children who are now young adults," as well as other anxieties suffered by evacuees.

Seven people from Fukushima who were children at the time of the disaster and later developed thyroid cancer have filed a suit seeking a total of more than 600 million yen ($4 million) in compensation from TEPCO and the government.

More than 290 people have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having thyroid cancer from a survey of about 380,000 residents aged 18 or younger at the time of the disaster. The occurrence rate of 77 per 100,000 people is significantly higher than the usual 1-2 per million, their lawyers say.

Government officials and experts have said the high rate in Fukushima is due in many cases to overdiagnosis, which might have led to unnecessary treatment.

Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press