TOKYO — Japan’s prosecutors officially began investigating Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and its former top executives on criminal charges today in relation to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima following last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

TEPCO was formally nationalized yesterday, July 31, after a trillion yen government cash infusion. This recent turn of events coud be very bad news for the remaining executives. Most criminal sentences in Japan also include hard labor as punishment.

The responsibility for the accident at TEPCO's Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant has been a point of contention for over a year but an unprecedented special investigatory body created by the Japanese Parliament, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) released a report that put the blame squarely on the shoulders of TEPCO and the Japanese government. It concluded: “the accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” The report also said that the possibility an earthquake played a major role in the meltdown, long before the allegedly “unprecedented” tsunami knocked out power supplies could not be ruled out.

Since last Spring, The Tokyo Prosecutor Office Special Investigative Division has been conducting a preliminary investigation into TEPCO on charges of criminal negligence resulting in death and/or injury. The firm is also facing charges of Environmental Pollution Crimes relating to Human Health (公害罪法違反). A Ministry of Justice source close to the investigation said on conditions of anonymity, “It seems very clear that TEPCO knew that an earthquake and/or a tsunami would probably damage the reactors and result in a meltdown. They failed to take preventive measures and their response in after-math was negligent, insufficient, and under Japanese law, they will be held criminally responsible.”

Across Japan, there have been at least twenty criminal complaints filed against TEPCO and Japanese government officials since March of last year, some by residents, some by citizen groups. Prosecutors in Fukushima Prefecture and Tokyo held off officially accepting the complaints until the final government report was promulgated last month. Law enforcement sources say that the NAIIC report will be used as evidence in the investigation. Another report issued by the RJIF, which has testimony suggesting the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant cooling system collapsed resulting in an LOCA (loss of coolant accident) before the tidal wave, is also said to be in the prosecutors’ evidence file.

The anger directed toward TEPCO and the Japanese government is quite substantial, there have been several popular books published calling for the criminal prosecution of the company and the nuclear industry, including such hits as, at right, Judging the Crimes of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident. The cover reads, "You too can file a criminal complaint against the evil nuclear industrial complex!"

TEPCO as noted above is also accused of environmental crimes as well as those violating the penal code. The problem for the prosecution is in proving, first, the meltdown could have been prevented or foreseen and that there was thus criminal negligence, second, to what extent exposure to radiation is “harmful” or if the accident has resulted in death, and, third, how to determine the extent of environmental damage. The issues of government responsibility may be far beyond the prosecution’s mandate. The investigation is expected to focus on Tsunehisa Katsumata, the chairman of TEPCO shown above at a contrite press conference three weeks after the disaster. He was absent on the day of the accident because he was visiting China on a press junket with Japanese reporters. Katsumata was the CEO of TEPCO before a minor nuclear plant accident forced him to resign and take what was deemed the lesser post of chairman.

If TEPCO executives are prosecuted for criminal neglect, it will not be the first time power company officials have faced such charges. After a much smaller scale nuclear accident at the JCO plant in Tokaimura in 1999, six employees of the firm were investigated and finally in 2003 found guilty of professional negligence resulting in death. If previous cases are any indication, the half-life of this investigation will be very long as well.