Three former executives of the operators of the ruined Daiichi Fukushima power plant, have been charged with mishandling the 2011 nuclear crisis.
The indictment means that a court will, for the first time, investigate the failure of the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) to prevent the world’s worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
Tsunehisa Katsumata, the company’s former chairman, and two former vice-presidents, Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, will face charges of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.
The aftermath of the 2011 triple meltdown showered much of eastern Japan with radioactive fallout and led to the evacuation of about 160,000 people.
Much of the area around the power plant remains uninhabitable and tens of thousands of the evacuees have yet to return home. Hundreds of mainly elderly people have died in temporary housing.
The indictment cites 44 frail and elderly patients who died when a hospital near the plant was evacuated, and says the company was responsible for their deaths.
Tepco has continued to argue that the 13m (43ft) tsunami that overwhelmed the plant’s cooling system following a huge earthquake on 11 March 2011 was “beyond all normal expectations”.
Critics have pointed out that the area had a history of powerful quakes and tsunamis. An internal Tepco report in 2008 predicted a maximum tsunami of 15.7m.
Greenpeace Japan called the charges a “major step forward for the people of Japan”.
“The court proceedings… should reveal the true extent of Tepco’s and the Japanese regulatory system’s enormous failure to protect the people of Japan,” said Hisayo Takada, Greenpeace’s deputy programme director in Japan.
The three executives are expected to plead not guilty. A spokeswoman for the company said it would make no comment on the case. “Revitalisation of Fukushima is our starting point,” she said. The indictment by a group of citizen activists is the first successful attempt to take Tepco to court; at least two previous bids have been rejected by public prosecutors.
“I want Tepco executives to tell the truth,” said Ruiko Muto, one of the lead plaintiffs. “Experts had warned against earthquakes and tsunamis on this scale, and Tepco employees had discussed their possibility and consequences among themselves,” she said after launching the first suit in 2012.
Japan is struggling to overcome the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, which has battered public faith in nuclear safety and triggered a pitched battle over the future of the country’s 50-plus commercial reactors.
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