During court proceedings concerning a radioactive golf course, Tokyo Electric Power Co. stunned lawyers by saying the utility was not responsible for decontamination because it no longer "owned" the radioactive substances.
“Radioactive materials (such as cesium) that scattered and fell from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant belong to individual landowners there, not TEPCO,” the utility said.
That argument did not sit well with the companies that own and operate the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club, just 45 kilometers west of the stricken TEPCO plant in Fukushima Prefecture.
The Tokyo District Court also rejected that idea.
But in a ruling described as inconsistent by lawyers, the court essentially freed TEPCO from responsibility for decontamination work, saying the cleanup efforts should be done by the central and local governments.
Although the legal battle has moved to a higher court, observers said that if the district court’s decision stands and becomes a precedent, local governments' coffers could be drained.
The two golf companies in August filed for a provisional disposition with the Tokyo District Court, demanding TEPCO decontaminate the golf course and pay about 87 million yen ($1.13 million) for the upkeep costs over six months.
TEPCO's argument over ownership of the radioactive substances drew a sharp response from lawyers representing the Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club and owner Sunfield.
“It is common sense that worthless substances such as radioactive fallout would not belong to landowners,” one of the lawyers said. “We are flabbergasted at TEPCO’s argument.”
The golf course has been out of operation since March 12, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami set off the nuclear crisis.
The companies wanted to reopen the course in July, but radiation levels, checked by the Nihonmatsu municipal government in June, were above the national safety limits.
On Aug. 10, a level of 2.91 microsieverts per hour was recorded 10 centimeters above ground at the tee of the sixth hole. The level was 51.1 microsieverts per hour near a drainage ditch in a parking space for golf carts, a level comparable to the Ottozawa area of Okuma, 2.4 km from the plant.
But TEPCO questioned the reliability of these figures.
“There is room for doubt about the ability of the measuring equipment the city used and the accuracy of the records,” it said.
TEPCO even suggested that the levels of contamination at the golf course would not pose a problem: “There are sites overseas with an annual reading of 10 millisieverts of natural radiation."
The district court on Oct. 31 not only rejected TEPCO’s argument that radioactive fallout belongs to individual landowners, it also said the city’s radioactivity measurements were credible.
Moreover, the court ruled that companies have the right to demand decontamination work by TEPCO.
But the court went on to say that central or local governments should be responsible for the decontamination work, given the efficiency of their cleanup operations so far.
The district court also rejected the companies' demand for compensation, saying the golf course operations could have been resumed because the radiation levels were below 3.8 microsieverts per hour, the yardstick set by the science ministry in April for authorizing the use of schoolyards.
The golf course companies immediately appealed the district court's decision.
Lawyers said operations were suspended at the golf course because of potential health risks to employees and customers.
“It is only natural that an employer take into account the health of its employees,” one of the lawyers said.
Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Club says that it doesn’t know when it can reopen.
The Fukushima prefectural golf association, citing “high radiation levels,” canceled a tournament at the golf course that was scheduled for early July. The fairways and greens have become overgrown with grass and weeds.
“We have asked 15 part-time workers, including caddies, to stay home since March 12,” said Tsutomu Yamane, representative director of the golf course. “We also asked all 17 employees working at the front desk and facility management, except for one employee, to voluntarily quit in September.”
The golf course company commissioned a radiation testing agency to check the course on Nov. 13. It detected 235,000 becquerels of cesium per kilogram of grass, a level that would put the area into a no-entry zone under safety standards enforced after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
On Nov. 17, radioactive strontium at 98 becquerels per kilogram was detected in the grass and ground.
Asked about TEPCO’s doubts concerning the city’s radiation measurements, Nihonmatsu Mayor Keiichi Miho said, “We made the utmost efforts when we conducted the checks.”
A TEPCO official told The Asahi Shimbun that company will refrain from commenting on the legal battle.