In what environmental advocates called a "major step" toward justice against corporate crime, three former executives with the Tokyo Electronic Power Company (TEPCO) on Monday were indicted on negligence charges over their roles in the 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
"I'm full of emotion," said Ruiko Muto, head of a campaign group that is pushing for a Fukushima trial, during a press conference on Monday. "This will be a great encouragement for hundreds of thousands of nuclear accident victims who are still suffering and facing hardship."
Ex-TEPCO chair Tsunehisa Katsumata and former vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro were charged with professional negligence over allegedly failing to take measures to protect the plant, despite being aware of elevated tsunami risks, in what became the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
The three were not taken into custody, but will face the first criminal action in connection with the disaster which forced the evacuation of 160,000 residents, many of whom are still unable to return. If convicted, the men face up to five years in prison or a fine of up to one million yen ($8,865).
Prosecutors moved forward with the charges after a civilian judiciary panel ruled in July for the second time that the executives should be put on trial.
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Environmental group Greenpeace said the case was a "major step forward."
"The people of Fukushima and Japan deserve justice. The court proceedings that will now follow should reveal the true extent of TEPCO's and the Japanese regulatory system's enormous failure to protect the people of Japan," said Greenpeace Japan deputy program director Hisayo Takada.
The trial, which is not expected to begin for at least six months, could reveal undisclosed information about the disaster that TEPCO has worked to keep under wraps, while Japan's nuclear regulatory agency and President Shinzo Abe continue to push for restarts on reactors without addressing safety issues, the group said.
"TEPCO and the Japanese regulator continue to ignore demands to disclose key details of what they know about the causes of the accident," Takada said. "The hundred thousand people who still can't return home deserve to have all the facts."
Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner, added, "Japan’s nuclear regulator continues to look the other way on major safety issues. The government continues to press ahead with nuclear restarts despite unresolved safety problems that put the public at risk. It’s time to break free from nuclear and embrace the only safe and clean technology that can meet Japan’s needs—renewable energy."