FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - At last, victims of Japan’s nuclear crisis can claim compensation. And they are angry.
They are furious at the red tape they have to wade through just to receive basic help and in despair they still cannot get on with their lives seven months after the huge quake and tsunami triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.
Shouts fill a room at a temporary housing complex where seven officials, kneeling in their dark suits, face 70 or so tenants who were forced to abandon their homes near the Fukushima nuclear plant after some of its reactors went into meltdown after the March 11 quake struck.
“We don’t know who we can trust!” one man yelled in the cramped room where the officials were trying to explain the hugely complex procedures to claim compensation.
“Can we actually go back home? And if not, can you guarantee our livelihoods?”
About 80,000 people were forced to leave their homes by the nuclear crisis.
While the owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co, has made temporary payments to some victims, it was only last month that it finally began accepting applications for compensation.
But the procedure is so complicated that it seems to just make things worse.
After claimants have read a 160-page instruction manual, they then have to fill in a 60-page form and attach receipts for lodging, transportation and medical costs.
“It’s too difficult. I‘m going to see how it goes. I don’t want to rush and mess up,” said Toshiyuki Owada, 65, an evacuee from Namie town, about 20 km (12 miles) away from the plant.
Owada is one of many who still has not applied for compensation even though they have lost jobs or businesses and are running out of cash.
The complexity of the task is one deterrent.
There is another -- the perception that Tepco is not playing fair.
Confidence in the authorities is low. The government is seen as having bungled its early response to the crisis and being secretive about what was really happening.
Tepco is accused of failing to take sufficient safety measures at the Fukushima plant even though it knew the risks and then deliberately underplaying the extent of the accident.
It is also seen as insensitive.
One clause in the original instruction booklet telling victims they would have to agree to waive their right to challenge the compensation amount in order to receive payment provoked a public uproar.
Chastised by the government, the company promised to drop the clause, issued a simplified 4-page instruction booklet and assigned 1,000 employees to Fukushima prefecture to help victims with the process.
“There may be times when the content is difficult to understand or in some cases our employee in charge may not grasp it fully, but we would like to explain and respond as carefully as possible,” said Tepco spokesman Naoyuki Matsumoto.
A government panel overseeing the compensation scheme estimates claims are likely to reach 3.6 trillion yen ($46.5 billion) in the financial year to next March.
But so far just 7,100 individuals have applied to Tepco for compensation out of the 80,000 it send forms to.
And of the 10,000 businesses in the Fukushima area, a mere 300 have submitted claims.
The company expects a total of 300,000 claims from businesses given that the impact of the radiation crisis has been so widespread.
Victims can sue but that is rare.
Junichi Matsumoto, a Tepco official, said the utility faces about 10 lawsuits so far. He declined to disclose details but said some were seeking more than the firm deemed appropriate.
Yuichi Kaido, an attorney and the secretary-general of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said lawsuits are considered a last resort in conservative rural northeast Japan.
“In the end, many lawsuits could take place,” he said.
“But the majority is thinking of first speaking with Tokyo Electric or seeking mediation.”
The final compensation depends on whether and when victims will be able to return to homes within a 20-km evacuation zone. That question remains unanswered, breeding a growing sense of resignation among evacuees.
Some said they doubt they will ever be able to go home and suggested their entire towns simply be relocated and many worry about long-term health effects of radiation.
An Asahi newspaper poll showed this month that 43 percent of evacuees still want to return, down from 62 percent in June.
For many, what is now on the table -- reimbursement for moving and transportation costs associated with evacuating, compensation for damage to health, lost jobs, and psychological suffering -- only deepens frustration over what they have lost.
Tokyo Electric said it will pay about 100,000 yen a month for the period to end of August as compensation for psychological trauma. After that, the sum will be halved.
“Evidence that we have lived our lives is completely destroyed and for that, we are told that we will be compensated 100,000 yen for our psychological suffering. That’s it?” said 75-year-old restaurant owner Sumiko Toyoguchi, who had to leave her home in Namie.
“What’s at the root of our frustration is that we cannot see what our tomorrow will be like.”
($1 = 77.365 Japanese Yen)
Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Jonathan Thatcher