TOKYO — Japan's leader felt fearful and helpless during last year's nuclear disaster and lacked experts capable of giving him guidance, he testified Monday in his first response to a public investigative inquiry on the crisis.
Naoto Kan resigned in September after being criticized for government failures during the disaster. He told the parliamentary panel he felt afraid when nuclear officials kept failing to explain conditions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, where three reactors melted down following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Kan also said the country's nuclear emergency preparedness law, set up in 1999 after a fatal accident at a nuclear fuel processing plant, did not address a severe accident that would require hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate, as in Fukushima.
"Everything anticipated in the law was inadequate, and we had to go through all kinds of troubles that we didn't need," he said. For instance, the plant's off-site crisis management center, which had no protection for radiation or backup power, had to be abandoned.
Kan said nuclear officials sent from government offices and the utility operating the plant as his advisers were not useful, and he never received the kind of information he needed. Japan's main regulatory body, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was particularly incapable, he said.
"I was frightened and felt helpless," he said. "You can't expect a nuclear expert to be prime minister or Cabinet minister, so we need top regulatory officials to provide expertise and help us. We didn't have those people."
NISA's top officials, who are not nuclear experts, have acknowledged the need to improve their resources.
Officials have also said information disclosure was slow and at times wrong, particularly in the immediate aftermath. They also cited poor communication and coordination between nuclear regulators, utility officials and the government.
The crisis, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, also revealed problems of the cozy ties between the nuclear industry and sympathetic government regulators – known as "the nuclear village" – that have prompted a culture of complacency. He called that "a root of the illness" of Japan and must be destroyed to create a fully effective regulatory system.
The government led by his successor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, had planned to revise the regulatory body, but the plan has been delayed as opposition lawmakers demanded more independence from the influence of the promoters.
Noda is desperately trying to restart two reactors in western Japan to curb the summer's power crunch, though the process has been delayed due to opposition from nearby towns, a move seen as backpedaling from Kan's push for a nuclear-free society.
Some 100,000 residents from around the plant have evacuated due to radiation contamination in the area. Japan declared stability at the plant in December, but it runs on makeshift equipment and its earthquake resistance is a concern. Officials say it will take about 40 years to decommission the plant.
A worst-case scenario envisioned by the head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission two weeks after last year's accident warned that a melting of the fuel rods at the No. 4 reactor would require the evacuation of 30 million people just from the greater Tokyo area.