Soon after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Penn Law professor Eric Feldman received a call from a colleague in Japan, who lamented that the legal academy had paid so little attention to the issues triggered by disasters. There were huge numbers of displaced people; tens of thousands of deaths; millions of destroyed and damaged homes; a seriously damaged and leaking nuclear power plant; and only the faintest legal framework for deciding who should be compensated, and how much they should receive.
Feldman realized that these complex legal issues demanded attention. He worked closely with a group of Japanese and international legal scholars to study the problems laid bare by Fukushima in the two years following the disaster. Not satisfied that they had fully explored the area, he then created a new course at Penn Law: the “Disasters and the Law” Global Research Seminar.
Although disasters have affected the lives of billions of people, and have had a profound economic and political impact, they are mostly uncharted territory for legal scholars. Feldman, an expert in Japanese law, comparative public health law, and torts, knew of only one casebook on the subject, and less than a handful of legal scholars who identify as experts in the intersection of law and disasters.
“There are almost no law-and-disaster-focused classes in the United States,” said Feldman. “To call it a field is an exaggeration.”
Japan is highly disaster-prone, Feldman explained, subject to earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. And disasters have implications for almost every branch of law. “There are not a lot of areas in the law school curriculum that aren’t touched by this,” he noted. Criminal law, procedure, contracts, international law, corporate law, tort law, and administrative law were all at play at some stage of the disaster life-cycle.
In Japan, the group’s first stop was the Fukushima site. Even with a semester of preparation, the students were still shocked by what they saw.
“In class, it’s easy to learn about the events leading to the disaster, the evacuation of the area, and response activities,” said Leia Andrews L’17. “We knew that the disaster had displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But the impact of a site visit is almost unexplainable. We saw firsthand an entire region full of destroyed homes and no people. Five years post-disaster, a lack of effective disaster-recovery policy is much more tangible when you see homes with their exteriors ripped off and people’s belongings still inside.”
The students also had the opportunity to meet with government officials from Iwaki City, near the Fukushima site, and members of the central government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They noted that some officials were tirelessly devoted to the work of restoring Fukushima, while others seemed more interested in presenting an image of progress, rather than confronting the difficulties of the process.
The students even had the chance to meet with officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority. “These meetings allowed us to get a sense for how the Japanese government is thinking about the recovery effort and its lessons,” said Nathan Swartz L’17. “Our meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Authority was particularly interesting as it gave us the chance to hear about how the Japanese nuclear regulators are approaching the process of reactivating Japan’s nuclear reactors.”
Law student shock at “lack of effective disaster-recovery policy” as shown through material devastation makes one wonder if the course gave serious consideration to the distinctive features of nuclear disaster.