UN expert urges help for Japan's nuclear victims

A United Nations expert who investigated the aftermath of Japan's 2011 nuclear power plant disaster says the government and the operator of the facility should do more to help those affected by the catastrophe.

A report by special rapporteur Anand Grover, posted on the U.N. Human Rights Council's website, says the government's takeover of Tokyo Electric Power Co. allowed the utility to evade full responsibility for the nuclear disaster, the worst since Chernobyl.

The report points to problems with the handling of the crisis, including a difficult process for seeking compensation for radiation exposure, a lack of openness about health risks from radiation and inadequate protection for nuclear plant workers.

It urges Japan to improve its emergency preparedness and its handling of compensation claims.

The Geneva-based council is due to discuss the report, compiled after a visit to Japan by Grover late last year, at its general meeting starting Monday.

Japan's atomic energy industry remains in crisis more than two years after a powerful earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

Over the weekend, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency reported a radiation leak at a research lab in the northern Japanese town of Tokaimura, where at least two previous radiation accidents have occurred.

Six researchers were confirmed to have been exposed to radiation and 24 others may have been, the JAEA said, with the highest radiation dose found so far being 1.7 millisieverts, or about the average annual background dose in Japan. Nuclear workers generally are limited to 100 millisieverts of exposure over five years.

No workers were hospitalized and the radiation was not thought to have escaped beyond the premises of the research facility.

The U.N. report cites a number of "serious challenges." It urges the government to involve affected communities in decisions, provide accurate information to the public, and do more to protect and help vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly.

Most of Japan's nuclear plants remain closed after being shut down for safety checks following the Fukushima disaster. TEPCO and other utilities are accumulating massive losses due to reduced revenue and because of the costs of natural gas and crude oil to generate power.

Although TEPCO, the main power provider for the Tokyo region, was legally responsible for any liabilities from its nuclear operations, the government took over its management in the wake of the crisis.

That acquisition of a majority stake in the company "has arguably helped TEPCO to effectively avoid accountability and liability for damages," forcing financial responsibility onto taxpayers, the U.N. report said.

Originally, seeking compensation involved a 60-page application form with 2,215 sections, the report said. Although the process has since been streamlined, the report said the government should address concerns over "TEPCO's attempts to reduce compensation levels and delay settlement."

The compensation should include financial relief to help the tens of thousands of residents displaced by the disaster rebuild their lives, it said.

So far, TEPCO has paid 2.3 trillion yen ($22.5 billion), about half of it to companies and business owners. That amount includes 1.6 million individual claims, mostly from voluntary evacuees. Because the amount of claims is expected to exceed the initial estimate of 3 trillion yen ($29 billion), the government has injected an additional 154 billion yen ($1.5 billion) into the compensation fund.

About 150,000 Fukushima residents are still displaced. Hundreds have filed claims seeking greater compensation, including many living outside the prefecture.

The report also expresses concern over nuclear power plant workers, saying that many of them are "poor and some even homeless." Despite a legal requirement to provide them with compulsory checkups, many hired through subcontractors lack proper or effective monitoring of their health.

It urges better handling of radiation-contaminated soil and other debris being removed from some areas as part of the cleanup from the disaster.

"As the contaminated waste is stored in residential areas and under playgrounds, thereby posing a health hazard to residents, establishing temporary storage facilities away from residential areas is urgently required," the report says.