After three years of legal wrangling, executives at the power company who ran the nuclear plant that brought disaster to Japan after a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in 2011 will face prosecution.

Tokyo Electric Power, known as TEPCO, brought Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant online in the 1970s. Reuters effectively summed up the devastation Japan faced after the Fukushima crisis: “An earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 destroyed the plant, 220 km (130 miles) northeast of Tokyo, sparking triple nuclear meltdowns, forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee nearby towns and contaminating water, food and air in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.” Radiation from the plant was detected as far away as the West Coast of the United States.

Now, a citizens’ panel has ruled that three high-level TEPCO personnel — former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and former executives Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro — should be indicted for failing to try to prevent the meltdowns. The decision overrules prosecutors’ previous determination that there was not sufficient evidence to charge the executives.

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Citizens’ panels are a rarely used tool in Japanese jurisprudence with which many Westerners are unfamiliar. Somewhat like a grand jury, such panels can evaluate whether prosecutors’ decision not to indict in a case is valid. When such a panel agrees prosecutors should indict, prosecutors reopen a case.

TEPCO has been here before: A citizens’ panel sent the case back to prosecutors for the first time last year. Prosecutors again declined to indict in January, but the case went back to another panel. This new group of citizens returned the same decision today.

If citizens’ panels reach the same decision twice, prosecutors must follow and prosecute. Once indicted, the former executives will be tried at a criminal court for the first time. “The citizens panel overrode the prosecutors’ decisions for a second time, which will lead to a compulsory indictment of the three Tepco executives,” reported the Japan Times.

In the four years since Fukushima, debate has raged in Japan about TEPCO’s responsibility in the disaster.

“The prosecutors’ decision must have sounded unacceptable to Fukushima residents displaced from their homes due to radiation fallout from the meltdowns, because it meant that nobody would be held criminally responsible for the disaster that had shattered the lives of so many people,” the Japan Times editorialized the last time a citizens’ panel recommended TEPCO executives be prosecuted. “In addition to such public sentiments, it is important to identify who was responsible for what technically went wrong at the TEPCO plant — a process that will be crucial for ensuring that the same mistakes are never repeated.”

“As Tepco’s president and then chairman from 2002 to 2012, Katsumata had apparently been informed of the tsunami risk and was in a position to order relevant sections of the company to take preventive actions, the panel said, noting that Katsumata’s explanation that he had not known about key details pertaining to such risks is ‘not credible,'” the paper wrote.

Yuki Oda reported from Tokyo

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