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

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Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at his office in Tokyo Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan speaks during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at his office in Tokyo Friday, Feb. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

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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