TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese prosecutors must decide this month whether to charge Tokyo Electric Power Co former executives for their handling of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, in a process that could drag the wrecked nuclear plant's operator into criminal court.
The judicial review is unlikely to see the former Tepco executives go to jail, legal experts say, but rehashing details of the meltdowns and explosions that followed an earthquake and tsunami will cast a harsh light on the struggling utility and will not help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's unpopular effort to restart Japan's nuclear reactors.
The Tokyo's District Prosecutors Office last year declined to charge more than 30 Tepco and government officials after investigating a criminal complaint from residents, who said officials ignored the risks to the Fukushima Daiichi plant from natural disasters and failed to respond appropriately when crisis struck.
But a special citizens' panel opened another legal front in July, asking prosecutors to consider charges of criminal negligence against three executives over their handling of the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Under the review system, the prosecutors must respond by the end of the month.
If they again decline to take up the case, as some experts expect, the 11-member panel of unidentified citizens can order prosecutors to indict, if eight members vote in favor.
Prosecutorial Review Commissions, made up of citizen appointees, are a rarely used but high-profile feature of Japan's legal system introduced after World War Two to curb bureaucratic over-reach. In 2009, they were given the power to force prosecutions.
A panel in 2011 forced the prosecution of former opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa over political funding. He was acquitted in 2012 and remains an opposition figure.
Tepco already faces a string of civil suits, a decades-long, multibillion dollar decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi and a struggle to restart a separate undamaged power station, the world's biggest.
All 48 of Japan's reactors have been idle for more than a year under a safety regime that incorporated the lessons of Fukushima, where 160,000 people were forced to flee from a huge plume of radioactive material that left large areas uninhabitable for decades.
Backed by Abe's pro-nuclear government, Kyushu Electric Power Co recently won approval from safety regulators to restart a plant in southwest Japan but faces opposition from some neighboring communities.
Nationwide, a majority of people has consistently opposed restarting nuclear power, according to opinion polls since the disaster.
The citizens' panel said Tsunehisa Katsumata, Tepco chairman at the time of the disaster, and former executive vice presidents Sakae Muto and Ichiro Takekuro failed to take protect the Fukushima plant despite warnings it faced big tsunamis.
The prosecutors are unlikely to change their minds, said Shin Ushijima, an attorney and former public prosecutor.
"Prosecutors exhaust all means in their investigations and certainly would have in a special case like this, so if they were convinced they could not prosecute Katsumata and the others earlier, they will not reach a decision to indict now," he said.
"There is a 50 percent chance that some or all of the three ex-Tepco executives will be indicted and 99.9 percent chance those indicted will be found not guilty," Ushijima said.
"How can you prove one person, Katsumata for example, is liable or guilty, when such a big organization was behind such a large accident?"
Tepco faces huge compensation claims and has set aside just a fraction of the funds needed to decommission the Fukushima plant.
A court recently ordered the utility to pay compensation to the family of a woman who killed herself after being forced from her home because of the disaster. A group of Fukushima workers is also suing the company for unpaid wages.
(Reporting by James Topham and Aaron Sheldrick; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Robert Birsel)