The Nuclear Odyssey of Naoto Kan, Japan’s Prime Minister during Fukushima

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. (Image credit: TEPCO)

On March 10, 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan felt assured that nuclear power was safe and vital for Japan. By the evening of the next day, following the massive Tohoku earthquake, the ensuing tsunami and the beginnings of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, he had changed his thinking "180 degrees."

Kan could not help but wondering how much worse the Fukushima meltdowns might get on the dark nights spent in his office after March 11, 2011. "What was going through my mind at the time?" Kan said through a translator during a public event at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City on October 8. "How much worse is this going to get, and how can we stop this from getting even worse?"

Kan immediately commissioned a report for the worst-case scenario from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which confirmed his worst fears: a potential evacuation area reaching as far as 250 kilometers from the stricken power plant—a zone of exclusion that would have reached all the way to Tokyo and affected roughly 50 million people. The potential for disaster was so great because the Fukushima area houses a total of 10 reactors and 11 pools that store used nuclear fuel. By March 15, three of those reactors were experiencing at least partial meltdowns, and four, thanks to a spent-fuel pool that also lost water cooling of the still-hot rods, had suffered hydrogen explosions.

Gruff and dark-haired, Kan is a circumspect man, with a history of admitting mistakes and showing impatience with those who do not. In 1996, as Japan’s Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, he apologized for the government's responsibility in allowing blood bearing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to spread among hospitals in years past. In 2010, as prime minister from the Democratic Party of Japan, he apologized to South Korea for Japan's annexation of that country a century earlier. Now the one-time nuclear supporter is campaigning for an end to power from fission. "There is no other disaster that would affect 50 million people—maybe a war," Kan observed. "There is only one way to eliminate such accidents, which is to get rid of all nuclear power plants."

The earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, whereas the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima have not caused any fatalities to date and are "unlikely" to cause any detectable health effects, such as increased cancers, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. But even today, more than two and a half years after the earthquake, the nuclear disaster is ongoing. Water contaminated with radioactive particles from the meltdowns continues to reach the Pacific Ocean, and radiation levels at the stricken power plant recently spiked. Typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters continue to threaten further disasters at the site and a total teardown may take decades. "The cause of this catastrophe is, of course, the earthquake and the tsunami but, additionally, the fact that we were not prepared," Kan said. "We did not anticipate such a huge natural disaster could happen." He also noted that the information supplied to him by the nuclear power industry in the aftermath of the meltdowns proved false.

In Japan, where Kan is currently a leader of his party's effort to promote alternative energy sources, his antinuclear campaign enjoys wide popular support, and none of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors are currently operating. But the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), supports restarting the nuclear plants, influenced in part by the tremendous cost of importing natural gas and coal to generate the electricity once produced by fission. In addition, as a result of the nuclear shutdown, Japan's emissions of greenhouse gas pollution rose nearly 6 percent in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, after increasing 4 percent in 2011, according to Japan's own figures. "Now we are at the point where the battle will be great, and it is going to determine the future of Japan," Kan said. "The best and biggest way of achieving a different energy reliance and independence from fossil fuels is efficiency, reducing energy use."

Japan has already shown that it can cut back on energy consumption via what has been dubbed setsuden, or power savings, such as reducing air conditioning demand in summer by wearing lighter clothes rather than suits. Such setsuden efforts in summer 2011, after the Fukushima meltdowns, helped reduce peak electricity demand in the Tokyo region by nearly 20 percent. And Kan hopes that, within a decade or so, renewable power sources can replace nuclear completely. He has personally remodeled his home, installing better windows and more insulation to cut down on energy use as well as a photovoltaic system that allows him to achieve "energy self-sufficiency." He hopes more Japanese will do the same; his last act before resigning as prime minister in August 2011 was to ensure the passage of a guaranteed higher price for electricity generated from the sun.

Kan is not the only elder statesman to join the chorus of opposition to nuclear power in Japan. Former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the one-time mentor of the current prime minister, Abe, reiterated his disapproval of nuclear power in September. The Fukushima disaster helped bring about his change of mind, as did a recent visit to Finland's long-term waste storage facility, which convinced him that such a facility could never be built in Japan and that his country's unstable geology made it ill-suited for nuclear reactors. Japan already has the Monju fast-breeder reactor for recycling used nuclear fuel instead of building such permanent storage, but the facility has been plagued by fires, shutdowns and other delays.

The Fukushima disaster has already affected the course of nuclear power worldwide, slowing the growth of a technology championed as a solution to large-scale electricity generation with much less greenhouse gas pollution than the currently dominant coal-fired power plant, although other factors, such as the increasing supply of cheap natural gas, also have diminished enthusiasm. "Severe accidents can and will happen, maybe not tomorrow or in 10 years or even in 30 years, but they will happen," Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the disaster and until July 2012, said at the 92nd Street Y event. "For nuclear power to be considered safe, nuclear power plants should not produce accidents like this."

Many Fukushima residents have been barred from their homes, perhaps permanently, and the disaster has hurt the entire economy of Japan. "There is nothing more challenging than to look into the eyes of a grandfather who no longer sees his children because they had to move on to find jobs," Jaczko told the audience, referring to a man he met during a visit to Japan in 2011. "That is the tragedy and human toll that the Fukushima disaster has enacted on nearly 100,000 people in Japan. You cannot put those impacts in dollar terms, but they are very real."

New designs that make reactors less susceptible to human error and hubris, or an industry shift toward smaller nuclear plants or alternative reactor technologies might allay some safety concerns. But Kan, for one, is unconvinced. "If we had a situation where by not utilizing nuclear power at all people starve to death or something, that's one thing," Kan said. But he noted that already a new energy prospect is visible off the Fukushima coast, where a floating wind turbine is being tested. It has been dubbed "Fukushima mirai," which means “Fukushima future” in Japanese. "In Japan,” Kan said, “we see that even without nuclear power plants we can actually supply energy to meet our demands."

This article was first published at Scientific American. © 2013 All rights reserved.

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