Prosecutors must decide this month whether to charge Tokyo Electric Power Co. executives over their handling of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster, in a process that could drag the company into criminal court.
The judicial review is unlikely to see Tepco former executives go to prison, legal experts say, but rehashing details of the meltdowns and explosions that followed the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami will cast a harsh light on the struggling utility and will not help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unpopular effort to restart the nation’s idled reactors.
The Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office declined last year to charge more than 30 Tepco and government officials after investigating a criminal complaint from residents, who said officials ignored the risks to the Fukushima No. 1 plant from natural disasters and failed to respond appropriately when crisis struck.
But a special citizens’ panel opened another legal front in July, asking prosecutors to consider charges of criminal negligence against three executives over their handling of the disaster.
Under the review system, the prosecutors must respond by Thursday.
If they again decline to take up the case, as some experts expect, the 11-member panel of unidentified citizens can order prosecutors to indict, if eight members vote in favor.
Prosecutorial Review Commissions, made up of citizen appointees, are a rarely used but high-profile feature of the legal system introduced after World War II to curb bureaucratic overreach. In 2009, they were given the power to force prosecutions.
A panel in 2011 forced the prosecution of former opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa over political funding. He was acquitted in 2012.
Tepco already faces a string of civil suits, the decades-long and massively expensive decommissioning of Fukushima No. 1 and a struggle to restart its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.
All 48 of Japan’s reactors have been idle for more than a year under a safety regime that incorporated the lessons of Fukushima, where 160,000 people were forced to flee from a huge plume of radioactive material that left large areas uninhabitable for decades.
Backed by Abe’s pro-nuclear administration, Kyushu Electric Power Co. recently won approval from safety regulators to restart the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture but faces opposition from some nearby communities.
Nationwide, a majority of people has consistently opposed restarting nuclear power, according to opinion polls.
The citizens’ panel said Tsunehisa Katsumata, Tepco chairman at the time of the disaster, and former Executive Vice Presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro failed to take measures to protect Fukushima No. 1 despite warnings it faced big tsunami.
The prosecutors are unlikely to change their minds, said Shin Ushijima, an attorney and former public prosecutor.
“Prosecutors exhaust all means in their investigations and certainly would have in a special case like this, so if they were convinced they could not prosecute Katsumata and the others earlier, they will not reach a decision to indict now,” he said.
“There is a 50 percent chance that some or all of the three ex-Tepco executives will be indicted and 99.9 percent chance those indicted will be found not guilty,” Ushijima said.
“How can you prove one person, Katsumata for example, is liable or guilty, when such a big organization was behind such a large accident?”
Tepco faces huge compensation claims and has set aside just a fraction of the funds needed to decommission Fukushima No. 1.
A court recently ordered the utility to pay compensation to the family of a woman who killed herself after being forced from her home because of the disaster. A group of Fukushima workers is also suing the company for unpaid wages.