After the cascade of disasters that befell Japan 27 months ago, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan took the brunt of withering criticism for shoddy nuclear safety standards at the crippled Fukushima reactor complex and the government’s chaotic emergency response to the crises.
Kan also took away a life-altering lesson. A longtime proponent of nuclear energy for his densely populated, resource-poor nation, the government leader who resigned in disgrace five months after the March 11, 2011, earthquake-triggered tsunami and nuclear disaster is now at the forefront of Japan’s movement to phase out atomic power.
Serious strides have been made in boosting the security of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors, only two of which are online now and producing power. The rest are undergoing safety retrofits and upgrades and will face more scrupulous testing and inspection before being brought back into operation.
Anti-nuclear sentiments abound in the wake of the disasters and put the future of the industry in doubt: More than 70% of Japanese polled by the Pew Research Center last year said they wanted nuclear power reduced or eliminated.
Kan’s successor as Japanese government chief, Yoshihiko Noda, pledged nine months ago to phase out nuclear power within 30 years, and public opposition to resuming wide-scale nuclear production is strong enough to have indefinitely set back any more restarts.
Critics of Japan’s past management of the nuclear sector also point out that the “unholy triangle” of government, industry and regulators has been broken, and that new oversight bodies should be able to operate independently and with an eye on safety needs instead of the power-generating companies’ bottom lines.
Kan, who was in Southern California last week for an environmental symposium, spoke with The Times about Japanese' struggles to recover from “3/11” and find an appropriate balance between supplying the country’s energy needs and stavving off another nuclear disaster.
Question: Where do you see the current government of Japan in the mission declared last year to phase out nuclear power within 30 years? Do the Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe share the commitment to the “zero option” announced by your Democratic Party of Japan in September?
Naoto Kan: There was an election last year and that has changed everything. Since the LDP regained power, they have completely changed course and they don't appear to have plans to phase out nuclear. My party has not changed its position. In fact, we believe the "zero option" could be reached even earlier than 30 years.Q: What is the status of the reactor restarts? Is there a plan to gradually bring more of the 48 idled reactors back into service following the restart of the two reactors at Ohi last year?
Kan: The rules and the procedures that were in effect on 3/11 have changed. There was a new regulatory agency created in April. However, whether the new administration will go by these stricter rules has not yet been decided. We’re not sure what position they’ll take on this new regulatory agency, but it doesn’t look promising. The Abe administration is completely lenient in its attitude toward nuclear power. He doesn’t appear inclined to go by the new regulations, which is causing friction.
Q: Is it your view that because of the frequency of seismic activity in Japan that nuclear facilities cannot be made entirely safe? Is Japan a particularly hazardous area for nuclear energy because of the frequency of earthquakes?
Kan: It is the most seismically active archipelago in the world, and the same goes for its vulnerability to tsunamis. Because of the geological situation with earthquakes, it is very difficult to find suitable places for situating reactors or storing spent fuel. In my opinion, it’s the most inappropriate country to have nuclear power, and that is the opinion of the experts as well. The same can be said for the West Coast of the Americas -- there is the same danger posed by earthquakes.
Q: Japan used to get a third of its electrical energy supply from nuclear production. What have Japanese authorities turned to as substitute energy sources to replace this lost nuclear output?
Kan: At the time of the disaster, Japan got about 30% of energy generation from nuclear. Right now, we have only the two reactors on line, which are supplying about 10% of the demand. There are two ways to make up this shortfall: first, from fossil fuels and, second, what I was creating during my administration and am working on now, which is increasing the supply of solar, wind and biomass -- renewable sources. We see the example of Europe, where as early as 20 years ago they introduced the feed-in tariff system, which is functioning very well. That is a very good model for Japan. Over the last year, solar energy generation has provided the equivalent energy output of 2.5 nuclear reactors. On my personal residence I have solar panels that produce 1 million kilowatts, which is only a fraction of the energy needed, so I am able to sell the surplus back to Tepco [Tokyo Electric Power Co.].Q: How do you assess the progress of breaking the relationship that was previously criticized as too incestuous between the power-generating companies and the government bodies that were supposed to be regulating them? The criticism at time of the Fukushima accident was that the foxes were in charge of the henhouse, so to speak, and there was inadequate supervision.
Kan: Before 3/11 there was the atomic safety commission that was in bed with the utilities. One thing I was able to do was establish this independent body that would play more of a watchdog role.
Q: How many displaced from the Fukushima evacuation zone are still unable to return to their homes because of contamination, and how long do you expect that situation to persist?
Kan: There are 160,000 evacuees who have had to leave the area of Fukushima. We’re not even close to being able to put an estimate on how much longer these people will have to stay away. There are amazing efforts in decontamination underway. However, the results of these efforts are working in some areas and in others it isn’t making much of a difference because the scale of the task is so huge.
Q: Who is in favor of returning to large-scale nuclear energy development? Is it just the utilities, or do other industries also lobby for resumption of nuclear generation?
Kan: It’s almost exclusively the electric companies. These companies that control the nuclear reactors are all in debt. Their vision is very short term, to get these reactors back online and their operations back in the black, even though they are very old and need upgrading. And these companies are paying no attention to the expense that will be incurred to store spent fuel. These companies aren’t thinking about their responsibility to deal with this.
Q: One consequence of the accident was that many Japanese became fearful of nuclear power and committed to phasing it out. Has that changed at all with the passage of time?
Kan: Last fall there was a huge public debate, and it was estimated that at least 70% of the population was strongly supportive of ending nuclear power. I don’t think this has changed. Despite the fact that the LDP did retake power last year, when you compare the popular support of nuclear power from the time when they were in power in 2009, it is much less now. They did not win the election on the nuclear issue.