South Korean Court Ruling Could Spur Nuclear-Power Plant Suits -Court Rules for Plaintiff Claiming Link Between Nuclear-Power Plant Radiation, Cancer-

SEOUL–A South Korean court for the first time has ruled in favor of a plaintiff claiming a link between radiation from a nuclear power plant and cancer—a verdict that could trigger similar lawsuits in a country that depends heavily on nuclear power.

The Busan District Court ruled Friday in favor of a claim by Park Geum-sun, age 48, that her thyroid cancer was caused by radiation from six nuclear power plants located 7.7 kilometers from her house in Ichon-ri, Kijang County on the nation’s southeastern coast.

“She has lived within 10 kilometers of the plants for over 20 years and has thus been exposed to radiation for a long time. Other than the radiation from the nuclear reactors, there’s no clear reason for her cancer,” the court said in a written ruling.

The court ordered the operator of the nuclear plant, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co., to pay Ms. Park 15 million won ($14,150) in compensation.

Korea Hydro, wholly owned by state-run Korea Electric Power Corp. , said Tuesday it will appeal to a higher court as soon as its legal review of the decision is over.

“Several medical studies show weak causal relations between the location of reactors and nearby residents’ thyroid cancer. Besides, thyroid cancer is the most common female cancer across the nation,” the reactor operator said in a statement.

The decision is Korea’s first ruling on whether there is a relation between the location of nuclear plants and cancer in nearby residents, according to a court spokesman and Leem Jong-han, a professor of occupational medicine at Inha University.

Mr. Leem, who advised the judges in the case, said there is a high possibility that radiation from nuclear power plants caused an increase in the number of thyroid cancer patients in nearby Korean communities.

In its ruling, the court cited a government-commissioned study in 2011 that showed women living within five kilometers of nuclear plants had 2.5 times higher incidences of thyroid cancer than women living 30 kilometers or further from the plants.

The court also cited a study by Kijang County and a state-funded nuclear-power research institute which showed that of 3,031 Kijang County residents who had a medical checkup between July 2010 and December 2013, about 1.4%, or a total of 41 men and women, were found to have thyroid cancer. That compared with a 1.06% diagnosis rate for thyroid and other cancers among tens of thousands of citizens examined in Gangnam, Seoul, by Seoul National University Hospital in the same period, the documents said.

According to the Ministry of Health & Welfare, thyroid cancer topped the list of cancers found in South Korean women in 2011, with 114 cases out of 100,000 females surveyed. That compares with 12 cases in the same size survey in 1999, when the cancer was rated as the seventh most common malignant tumor among women. The ministry said the increase is partly due to increased detection from more-frequent medical checkups among women.

Analysts said Ms. Park’s case could be a forerunner of similar suits by residents in other communities near nuclear power plants.

“The ruling reflects low public acceptance of nuclear power in Korea,” said Han Byung-hwa at Eugene Investment & Securities.

Public concerns over nuclear power have risen since Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, though there has been no fatal nuclear accident in South Korea since the country built its first commercial nuclear plant in 1978. In a nonbinding referendum earlier this month, for example, residents of the port city of Samcheok, north of Seoul, overwhelmingly voted against a government plan to build a nuclear-power plant in the area.

While the court ruled in favor of Ms. Park’s thyroid-cancer claim, it rejected a claim by her husband, Lee Jin-sup, that his rectal cancer and his 22-year-old son’s autism were also caused by long exposure to radiation from the nearby nuclear plant.

“I’ll continue to fight to prove that my son and myself were also victims of radiation,” Mr. Lee said at a news conference on Monday. He added he has no family history of cancer, but his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who both live in Kijang, have stomach cancer and thyroid cancer, respectively. Neither Mr. Lee’s mother-in-law nor sister-in-law has sued Korea Hydro.

Hwang Bu-ni, who joined Mr. Lee at the news conference, said she believes her thyroid cancer was also caused by radiation from Korea Hydro nuclear power plants, which are located 1 kilometer from her home of 30 years.

“I live so close to the reactors that I see the dome of the nuclear plant from my house. My family wants to move out of this town, but no one wants to buy our house,” said the 67-year-old woman.

South Korea has 23 nuclear reactors which generate about a third of its electricity, and any move away from nuclear power would mean spending billions of dollars to pay for extra fossil-fuel imports. With almost no homegrown natural energy resources, Korea wants to build 16 new nuclear reactors by 2030.