Naoto Kan defended his actions as prime minister during the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, saying he was battling an industry that was behaving like the Imperial Japanese Army.
"They were in actual control of nuclear energy administration and ostracized experts, politicians and bureaucrats who were critical,” Kan said at the Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission on May 28. “And many of those involved resorted to self-protection and simply observed what was happening, without making waves."
Kan spent much of his nearly three hours before the Diet investigation committee criticizing the "nuclear industry village," specifically Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken plant, and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.
The former prime minister said the accident was caused in part by efforts of the nuclear village to ignore or contain any criticism or indications of danger.
Kan was the last politician closely involved in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident to appear before the panel.
He began the session by apologizing for being unable to stop the accident as prime minister and saying the central government bore clear responsibility for the disaster.
"It was caused by nuclear energy policy that was allowed to continue as a matter of national policy, so the greatest responsibility rests with the central government," Kan said. "I would like to apologize as the person in charge of the central government at the time."
However, Kan quickly moved on the offensive, arguing that his actions were sound during the crisis while blasting the nuclear energy sector and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for failing to provide adequate information.
Kan prepared thoroughly for his appearance. He consulted with Goshi Hosono, the state minister in charge of the Fukushima nuclear accident who served as a special aide during the accident, about the interaction between the prime minister's office and the Fukushima nuclear plant. Kan also followed the Diet panel's proceedings over the Internet and prepared documents for use during his own appearance. His aides when he was prime minister accompanied him to the Diet panel.
The first topic Kan was questioned about was the appropriateness of his direct involvement in the early stages of the accident.
He was asked why he flew by helicopter to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant early on March 12, a day after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear accident. Kan pointed the finger at the nuclear village.
"There were no fundamental discussions about what to do from NISA, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) or TEPCO," Kan said. "I felt I could understand what the situation was like by talking directly to the people who were responsible (at the plant)."
Kan explained that he was told by Masao Yoshida, the head of the Fukushima plant at the time, about the situation. He also quoted Yoshida as saying that a do-or-die effort would be conducted to vent the reactor cores to lower the pressure within the containment vessels.
Kan added, "It was extremely important to match up names and faces in knowing what those at the plant were thinking and how they were viewing the situation."
He also said he only called Yoshida directly twice after his visit to the Fukushima plant, denying earlier allegations that his frequent calls to Yoshida interfered with the work to bring the situation under control.
"While that is not the normal procedure, because it was such a crisis situation, the circumstances called for doing whatever was possible," Kan said.
The former prime minister was also asked about his assertion that TEPCO requested a full evacuation of its workers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and his subsequent excoriation of TEPCO executives at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.
Kan said he heard about TEPCO’s request through Banri Kaieda, the industry minister at the time.
"I really had no intention of reprimanding anyone," Kan said. "I may have raised my voice somewhat because I wanted to be clear, but I spoke in a quieter voice than in fights with my wife."
He continued, "My feelings at that time were to have TEPCO executives reconsider their request to evacuate and to have them stake their lives in dealing with the situation."
Koichi Tanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry and sits on the Diet panel, touched upon Kaieda’s comment that people hearing Kan speak for the first time may feel some discomfort.
Kan responded: "If they took it in a harsh way, that was not my true intention. I apologize if there was anyone who felt displeasure."
Kan also explained why he announced the formation of a comprehensive headquarters among the central government and TEPCO to deal with the nuclear accident.
"While it is not normal for the central government to intrude into a private company, I felt things would get out of hand unless there was a unification of the decision-making process," Kan said.
And he criticized NISA again, saying, "In the initial stages, there was no one who could explain the contents of nuclear energy."
At the same time, Kan acknowledged that the decision to expand the area for evacuating residents around the Fukushima No. 1 plant was based on the opinions of NISA and the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
Kan also apologized for the prolonged evacuation of Fukushima residents.
"While I thought I made the best effort, there were also major insufficiencies in many areas," he said.
Kan has not backed down from his stance that Japan must move away from nuclear energy, even as the current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, seeks to resume operations at some nuclear power plants.
"It is impossible to secure reliable safety measures that would respond to the risks of the nation collapsing, including through terrorism or war,” Kan said at the Diet panel. “I am convinced that the safest nuclear energy is to move away from any reliance on nuclear energy."
Noda said on May 28 about the Diet panel investigation, "We will implement measures based on the lessons learned and a re-examination of the accident in order to ensure that such an accident never happens again."
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