SEOUL, South Korea _ A private-sector panel of scientists has been appointed by the Japanese government to conduct an independent investigation into the causes and aftermath of the last year's nuclear meltdown at the tsunami-struck Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant.

The formation of the board, composed of nuclear power critics, is an unlikely step by a central government whose policies, critics say, have often been guided by the quiet but powerful hand of the nation's nuclear power industry.

In selecting panel members, Japanese lawmakers ruled out anyone with previous experience in the nuclear power industry and no ties with the government or the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.

"We will get to the bottom of the case and compile a proposal for the future as we strive to live up to the people's expectations," panel Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa told a news conference Monday. "We will seek how we can be different from the government panel."

Following their first open meeting, panel members reiterated that they would probe deeper into the country's worst-ever nuclear disaster than the investigation conducted last year by the Tokyo government and plant operators.

Some questions before the board are whether the cause of the damage to the coastal plant 220 miles north of Tokyo was caused by a tsunami that struck the nation's northeastern on March 11 or by the powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the wall of water.

The disaster caused meltdowns at several reactors at the 1970s-era plant which belched radioactivity into the atmosphere, causing the evacuation of 80,000 residents and the worries over radioactive food supplies.

Kurokawa, a doctor of medicine and a former president of the Science Council of Japan, has previously questioned Japan's nuclear policy and the seismic risks to the country's 54 nuclear reactors.

Other members include Nobel laureate Koichi Tanaka and experts on nuclear reactors, earthquakes and radiation treatment, as well as a former prosecutor and a representative from areas affected by the nuclear crisis.

Kurokawa reported on his blog that he and nine other panel members visited the stricken nuclear power plant within days after their appointment in December, donning hazmat suits for a close inspection of the damage at the reactors.

"The operation of this committee is by itself a huge challenge to all of us," he wrote. "At any rate, we are now at the start of a very challenging year."

In a first for Japan, the private-sector panel has the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents. The committee will submit its findings to lawmakers this summer.

The committee has yet to decide whether to summon former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and other officials for a report on their handling of the initial crisis. Kan resigned in August amid criticism of his handling of the disaster.

Kurokawa said one goal of the investigation was to "earn trust for Japan as a state" by sharing results of the probe with other nations.

(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times