A trio of former top executives at a Japanese power giant are to appear in court over the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011.
In a rare legal move, a citizen’s panel ruled the three Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) officials should face charges.
The decision forces prosecutors who had previously declined to act to seek an indictment.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered a series of meltdowns following a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Tens of thousands of people had to leave their homes in the worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine.
The judicial panel, made up of ordinary Japanese citizens, allege the three failed to take sufficient preventative measures at the plant while knowing the risks of a tsunami.
It said the men should be charged with professional negligence resulting in death, in what will be the first criminal case involving Tepco officials.
Prosecutors in Tokyo had twice decided against pressing charges, citing insufficient evidence.
But the panel’s ruling forces a compulsory indictment of the three, who include 75-year-old former Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata.
Analysts say guilty verdicts are unlikely, given the prosecutors’ previous ruling that the case was not strong enough to pursue.
“This is a very unusual case. The hurdles to conviction are high,” Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor, told the New York Times.
One of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded struck off the coast of Japan in March 2011, triggering a huge tsunami. Almost 16,000 people died and more than 2,500 are still listed as missing.
None of the deaths however have been linked to the nuclear disaster, although there were a number of deaths in the subsequent evacuation.