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Naoto Kan, Ex-Prime Minister: Japan Was Unprepared For Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

Naoto Kan Fukushima

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 8:04 am

TOKYO (AP) — Japan was woefully unprepared for last year's nuclear disaster, the country's former prime minister said, and suggested that the crippled Fukushima plant should not have been built so close to the ocean on a tsunami-prone coast.

In an exclusive interview Friday with The Associated Press, Naoto Kan acknowledged flaws in authorities' handling of the crisis, triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, including poor communication and coordination between nuclear regulators, utility officials and the government Kan headed at the time.

But he said the disaster — the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 — laid bare a host of an even bigger man-made vulnerabilities in Japan's nuclear industry and regulation, from inadequate safety guidelines to crisis management, all of which he said need to be overhauled.

"Before 3/11, we were totally unprepared," he said. "Not only the hardware, but our system and the organization were not prepared. That's the biggest problem."

Kan said the disaster made clear to him that Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power, which supplied 30 percent of its electricity before the crisis, and has turned him into a believer of renewable energy.

He also acknowledged that information disclosure was sometimes slow and at times wrong, particularly in the days immediately after the crisis erupted. He blamed a lack of reliable data at the time and said the government never hid any information from the public.

Kan said the very location of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was problematic.

It was built close to the shore and about 33 feet (10 meters) above a coastline that has experienced numerous tsunamis over the centuries, including three within the last 120 years, all of them smaller than the one on March 11. That height was a level regulators and the utility operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., thought was safe.

But the tsunami that hit on March 11 was at least 46 feet (14 meters) tall, and it knocked out the plant's power as well as emergency generators, located in the basement areas of the reactor buildings, disabling their cooling systems and sending three active reactors into meltdowns.

"If they had thought about it, they wouldn't have intentionally built it at a place so low," said Kan. "The plant was built on the assumption that there was no need to anticipate a major tsunami, and that's the very beginning of the problem."

"We should have taken more adequate safety steps, and we failed to do so," he added. "It was a big mistake and I must admit that (the accident) was due to human error."

The accident displaced about 100,000 people who lived near the plant and has raised fears of contamination in everything from fruit and vegetables to fish and water. In December, the government declared the plant was stable, although it estimates that it will take about 40 years to completely decommission the plant.

Early on in the crisis, Kan said he did consider the possibility of a worst-case scenario in which all six of the reactors plus spent fuel pools melted down out of control. That probably would have resulted in radioactive fallout over a wide area, requiring evacuation of millions of people, including possibly the population of Tokyo.

Kan said he never instructed officials to produce a blueprint plan for evacuating the 30 million people from the greater Tokyo area, although an internal report submitted March 25 by the head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission — and obtained by the AP — warned of that possibility if the disaster deteriorated. Fearing panic, the report was kept a secret.

"My mission was to stop that from happening and think how to do it," Kan said. "We were lucky to have taken the crisis under control before things turned worse."

He said the crisis was most dire around the time of a third hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima plant in mid-March .

"Up until around March 15, we were losing ground to the invisible enemy," he said.

But he started to regain confidence after workers were able to spray water into the reactors and overheated core temperatures started to level off.

Since the crisis, Japan has decided to lower its reliance on nuclear power, reversing its plans to boost it to 50 percent by 2030. Most of its 54 reactors are currently offline, most of them undergoing safety inspections.

Kan said there is no future for nuclear energy, considering the magnitude of the damage from an accident and the yet-to-be resolved question of what to do with radioactive waste.

"I wouldn't call myself anti-nuclear," Kan said. "I seek a society non-reliant on nuclear energy, a society that can do without nuclear energy, and Japan can prove a role model. It's possible."

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  • In this combination photo, Tayo Kitamura, 40, kneels in the street to caress and talk to the wrapped body of her mother Kuniko Kitamura, 69, after Japanese firemen discovered the dead body in the ruins of her home in Onagawa, Japan, on March 19, 2011, top, and a newly built home sits at the site of the now-cleared but destroyed area on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • A few homes have been rebuilt in the year since an earthquake and tsunami roared across Japan's coastline, killing 19,000 people. But most communities remain unrecognizable, and their residents' futures uncertain. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • The tsunami that slammed into Japan's coastline one year ago was merciless, sparing little in its path. Homes were reduced to rubble, cars tossed about like toys, and boats -- such as this one photographed in Kesennuma, Japan, on March 28, 2011 -- flung from the sea into streets and onto roofs. The ocean's fury, and the earthquake that preceded it, left around 19,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, and sparked the worst nuclear crisis the world had seen in a quarter century. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • In this combination photo, Japanese vehicles pass through the ruins of the leveled city of Minamisanriku, Japan, on March 15, 2011, top, four days after the tsunami, and vehicles pass through the same area on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • The earthquake and tsunami, which killed around 19,000 people, delivered one of their worst hits to the once-scenic, blue-collar fishing town of Minamisanriku, Japan, photographed here on March 15, 2011. The wall of water spared little in its path, sweeping away nearly every business and every job, and leaving more than half the town's residents dead or homeless. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • A year after the earthquake and tsunami people across Japan and leveled this town, there are hints of progress _ the main roads are free of debris, and some temporary houses have been built. But many in Minamisanriku, and elsewhere across Japan's battered coastline, remain in a hellish state of limbo. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • In this combination photo, a ship washed away by the tsunami sits in a destroyed residential neighborhood in Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, on March 28, 2011, top, and the same ship sits on the same spot on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • A year after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country's coastline and killed around 19,000 people, many of the boats carried inland by the wall of water have been removed. But some, like this one, remain _ providing a stark reminder of nature's fearsome power. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder File)

  • One year later, more than 3,200 people presumed killed in the earthquake and tsunami have yet to be found. They are among the 19,000 people who lost their lives on March 11, 2011. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • In this combination photo, Japanese residents of Kesennuma, northeastern Japan, pass through a road that was cleared by bulldozer through the ruins of the city on March 17, 2011, six days after the tsunami, top, and people cross the same street on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • In the days after the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan's coastal towns, the bulldozers began to arrive, clearing away the rubble that littered the roads, such as this street in Kesennuma, Japan, photographed on March 17, 2011. Those tasked with clearing away the wreckage faced a monstrous task: towering piles of twisted metal and wood, boats perched atop roofs, mountains of family heirlooms, sodden furniture and children's toys. They also faced the grim reality that many of the 19,000 people killed lay entombed in the rubble, waiting to be discovered. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • One year after a powerful tsunami battered Japan and killed around 19,000 people, the streets have been cleared and the wreckage removed from town centers. But the process of destroying all that debris has been slow, with much of it still sitting in huge mountains in temporary holding areas. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

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