Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun
The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant should be considered a "man-made disaster," and poor communication with the plant's operator hindered the initial government response, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan has told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
In an exclusive interview, Kan also said he felt "very sorry" for residents of Fukushima Prefecture who would not be able to return to their homes for a long time due to the nuclear crisis.
"There in fact were various opinions [regarding the safety of the plant] before the accident, but no well-thought-out preparations were made," he said. "In that sense, the nuclear accident should be considered a man-made disaster."
Referring to the response to the accident by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission, Kan said the two watchdogs had been "unable to foresee the possibility that all power sources could be lost" at the nuclear complex.
As a result, neither the agency nor the commission could deal effectively with the circumstances that arose after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling systems, he said.
Kan said there also were problems with the flow of information from the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
The former prime minister said he ended up calling Masao Yoshida, the head of the plant, in a bid to gauge what was actually happening.
Kan revealed that the off-site emergency response center near the plant, though supposed to serve as a front-line command center in the event of a crisis, was vacated soon after the accident.
"As a result, arrangements that had been assumed in accident simulations hardly worked at all," said Kan, who stepped down late last month.
Kan was frustrated by the lack of details TEPCO provided soon after the disaster.
"Although I instructed the utility to vent [vapor in the nuclear reactor containers], TEPCO failed to do this, and I wasn't told of the reasons for that failure," he said. "Even as I sought an explanation for this situation, I couldn't tell whose decisions I was being given. It was like a game of Chinese whispers."
Kan visited Fukushima Prefecture on Aug. 27, the day after he officially announced he would resign as prime minister. He conveyed to the prefectural governor his view that people in some radiation-affected areas might be unable to return to their homes for a long period. He also called for the Fukushima government's approval to have temporary storage facilities for radiation-tainted materials built in the prefecture.
"I felt very sorry for all the victims of the disaster, but I thought it was my responsibility as prime minister in office at the time of the March 11 disaster to speak about the worst possible scenario," he said.
Excerpts from Kan interview
Following are excerpts from former Prime Minister Naoto Kan's interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident, one of the biggest challenges he faced while in office.
Question: What do you think was the biggest factor behind the nuclear crisis?
Kan: All the crisis-management arrangements that had been made prior to the accident failed to function properly.
Q: Do you wish you had responded differently to the crisis?
Kan: Nobody can be 100 percent perfect, but I believe I did what I should have done.
Q: It seemed the government and TEPCO were often one step behind developments during the crisis.
Kan: That accident was beyond our expectations, so there were no preparations to cope with it properly. It had been assumed there was no possibility the plant's power sources would be lost, so it was only natural that we were one step behind as the crisis unfolded.
Q: When did you contact the head of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, Mr. Masao Yoshida?
Kan: Whenever I needed firsthand information about the conditions at the nuclear plant and what decisions were being made there. Mr. Yoshida gave me adequate answers, but it couldn't be helped that information I obtained from TEPCO's head office was incomplete and insufficient.
Q: Was the lack of accurate information the biggest problem?
Kan: Definitely. That I could not get correct information stemmed from shortcomings in the system.
Q: Was it your idea to have Self-Defense Forces helicopters drop water into pools for storing spent nuclear fuel at the plant reactors?
Kan: That was basically done at my request. The temperature of the spent nuclear fuel pool was rising alarmingly, and the United States was also expressing concern. The SDF operation drastically changed the mood of the people involved. Everybody suddenly became very positive about tackling the crisis.
(Sep. 7, 2011)