TOKYO (AP) -- A Japanese judicial panel has recommended that three former executives of the utility that operates the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant face criminal charges over their role in the disaster.
A document released by the panel on Thursday showed it voted in favor of indicting Tsunehisa Katsumata, chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. at the time of the crisis, along with vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro, on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in deaths and injuries.
The coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi plant suffered multiple meltdowns following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed its power and cooling systems. The cleanup effort continues, and its decommissioning is expected to last decades.
The decision by the 11-member panel followed an appeal of a prosecutor's decision last September to drop cases against six TEPCO executives, citing lack of evidence. The panel said dropping the case against a fourth executive, Akio Komori, was inappropriate but stopped short of recommending indictment. It endorsed the decision of prosecutors not to indict the other two executives.
The appeal representing nearly 6,000 people from Fukushima and other parts of Japan argued that prosecutors should investigate again and send the utility executives to court to determine who was responsible for the disaster. The group said the executives failed to fulfill their obligation to prevent a serious accident which triggered massive radiation leaks, injured plant workers and led to the deaths of dozens of elderly patients during or after their evacuation.
As a result of the panel's decision, prosecutors must reinvestigate and decide whether to indict the four executives within three months. A second indictment vote for the three executives by the panel would force them to go to court. They would be the first TECPO executives to face a criminal trial in the Fukushima disaster.
The panel alleged that TEPCO was beholden to a "safety myth" and kept running the plant without implementing safety steps that would have required suspending plant operations and incurred financial losses.
Government and parliamentary investigative reports have also said TEPCO's deficient safety culture and weak risk management, including a lowball estimate of tsunami threats, led to the disaster.
Hiroyuki Kawai, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the panel's decision was "commonsense."
"It is outrageous that nobody has faced criminal responsibility in the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident that has caused tremendous and serious damage," he said.
Tokyo's deputy chief prosecutor said in a statement he would carefully study the panel's decision and take appropriate steps.
A separate panel earlier this year voted in favor of a decision by prosecutors not to press criminal charges against top government officials including Naoto Kan who was prime minister at the time of the nuclear crisis. It also cited a lack of evidence.