Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan has admitted that Japan was woefully unprepared for last year's nuclear disaster and suggested that the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant should not have been built so close to a tsunami-prone coastline.
Straight shooter: Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan is interviewed at his office in Tokyo on Friday. AP
In an exclusive interview, Kan acknowledged flaws in the authorities' handling of the crisis, including poor communication and coordination among nuclear regulators, Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s management and the government Kan was heading at the time.
But he said the disaster — the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 — laid bare a host of even bigger vulnerabilities in the nuclear power industry and its regulations, ranging 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 in terms of the hardware, but our system and the organization were not prepared. That was the biggest problem."
Kan said the disaster made him realize that Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power, which accounted for 30 percent of the country's electricity supply before the crisis, and has turned him into a believer in renewable energy.
He also acknowledged that information was sometimes slowly disclosed and at other times erroneous, particularly in the days immediately after the crisis started. He blamed a lack of reliable data at the time and denied the government ever hid any information from the public.
Kan said the very location of the Fukushima plant was problematic.
"If they had thought about it, they wouldn't have intentionally built it at such a low location," Kan said. "The plant was built on the assumption that there was no need to anticipate a major tsunami, and that was the actual start 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."
Early on in the crisis, Kan said he had considered the possibility of a worst-case scenario in which all six of the plant's reactors and rods in their spent-fuel pools would have melted down completely out of control. That probably would have resulted in radioactive fallout spreading over a wider area, requiring the evacuation of millions of people, including possibly the population of Tokyo.
But Kan said he never instructed officials to produce a blueprint for evacuating the 30 million people living in the greater Tokyo area, although an internal report submitted March 25 by the head of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission warned of such a possibility if the disaster deteriorated. Fearing panic, the report was buried and kept a secret.
"My mission was to stop (such an evacuation) from happening and to think how to do it," Kan said. "We were lucky to manage to get the crisis under control before things worsened."
He said the crisis was at its most dire stage around the time a third hydrogen explosion was detected at the Fukushima plant in mid-March. "Up until around March 15, we were losing ground to the invisible enemy," he said.