It is little more than three years since the Tōhoku earthquake devastated the northeast of Japan in 2011. The most powerful earthquake Japan has ever experienced (fifth biggest in the world since records began) triggered a massive tsunami which caused widespread destruction of nearby houses and infrastructure as well as the immediate deaths of more than 15,000 people. The tsunami also resulted in the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi plant with meltdown of three of its six reactors and a number of explosions – the largest in the Reactor 3 building blowing off the roof and producing a huge radioactive plume. Fukushima is a disaster that, although rarely making it into the news, is ongoing.
To mark this third anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and Fukushima disaster, on Tuesday last week [March 11th] Democracy Now! devoted the full show to an exclusive interview with Naoto Kan, Japan’s Prime Minister at the time, who says Fukushima “was definitely the largest, most severe of all nuclear disasters, including going above Chernobyl”, but that in the worst-case scenario it could have been a hundred times more serious:
[A]t the Daiichi plant, there are six reactors and seven spent fuel pools. And then, 12 kilometers from there, at the Daini, the second Fukushima nuclear power plant, there are four additional reactors and four spent fuel pools, meaning that when you combine both Daiichi and Daini together, there’s 10 reactors and 11 spent fuel pools altogether. And if we were to lose control of all of this, it would mean that the accident, the disaster, could be on a scale of many tens or even hundred times more radioactive materials being released than what happened at Chernobyl. And so, thinking about this made me also think about the risk of the possibility that maybe even areas including Tokyo might need to be evacuated. […]
And within this scenario, it said that the worst case could mean having to evacuate up to a 250-kilometer radius of the area… [and] that would involve 40 percent of the population of the whole country of Japan.
This greater crisis has so far been averted, but meanwhile the damaged reactors continue to leak, polluting the air and the ocean, whilst the threat of a worse disaster will persist until the spent fuel rods can be safely removed. This is itself an extraordinarily complex and hazardous procedure involving novel technical challenges.
A small army of engineers and volunteers – including, most deplorably, many recruited from the ranks of Japan’s homeless population (see this article from The Independent) – are also there to help with decontamination of the site. While, and for obvious reasons, the surviving reactors at Fukushima need to be decommissioned too. The operation, not of saving, but merely ameliorating the level of radioactive pollution still being released by the crippled plant, as well as maintaining today’s precarious though stable conditions means extraordinary costs not only in economic terms, but human terms as well. Sustained efforts which will have to go on indefinitely.
Advocates of nuclear power sometimes claim that since the disaster at Fukushima was a result of an almost unprecedented natural disaster, we should not be too alarmed by nuclear plants closer to home. The reactors were old, they point out, and poorly maintained. In the days after the disaster, one prominent environmentalist, whose name does not need repeating here, went so far as to inform the world that the limited failure of the Daiichi plant had led to his own road to Damascus conversion: immediately after the disaster, he wrote, “The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.” It is perhaps worth noting that the person in question resides in Wales not Japan.
There are a number of points here. The most glaring being that many of the reactors still in operation around the world are equivalently old-fashioned – and very likely no better maintained than those at Daiichi. At the time of the disaster, the reactors at Fukushima were between thirty and forty years old. As you can see from the chart below (based on the latest information from the IAEA), more than fifty of the world’s 435 reactors are now forty or more years old with over half constructed more than thirty years ago:
But it is also important to understand why the reactors at Fukushima failed at all. All had survived the earthquake intact and were then successfully shutdown, however at Daiichi the core temperature inside the reactors continued to rise when the cooling systems stopped working. It was this breakdown of the cooling systems, in turn due to an electrical blackout and loss of backup generators, that caused the meltdowns. So, the disaster at Fukushima shows how reactors – including ones located in areas less prone to natural disasters – might become vulnerable in the event of a major and long-lasting power outage. Click here to read more on this in a report published by the Huffington Post entitled “Long Blackouts Pose Risk to U.S. Nuclear Reactors”.
Perhaps of still greater concern is the staggering fact that there are many nuclear plants throughout the world – including a further six in Japan – also built very close to active geological fault-lines. In the case of the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture, an active fault runs directly beneath one of its reactors.
Prior to the disaster, Naoto Kan had also been strongly in favour of nuclear power. Shortly afterwards, and whilst holding the office of Prime Minister (he later resigned in August), Kan altered his opinion:
Before March 11 and the disaster, I was holding the position that if the safety could be ensured, then we should continue to utilize nuclear power, nuclear power plants. But, as you [interviewer Amy Goodman] said, this position changed. The Fukushima disaster brought us on the verge of having to evacuate 50 million people, and we were only just one small step away from perhaps facing this kind of situation… the one way to prevent this from happening, to prevent the risk, to get rid of the risk of having to evacuate such huge amounts of people, 50 million people, and for the purpose, for the benefit of the lives of our people, and even the economy of Japan, I came to change [my] position, that the only way to do this, what was necessary to do this, was to totally get rid of the nuclear power plants.
In the second half of the interview, Naoto Kan was also asked to account for his own actions in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. For instance, why had he ordered the TEPCO employees to remain on the site? This was his response:
Well, the first thing which happened at 3:00 a.m. on March the 15th, the minister for the economy came to my office, came to me, and he said that the TEPCO headquarters had requested to him for the workers from the Daiichi site to be withdrawn from their positions. However, then considering what would happen on the site if all of TEPCO’s technicians from on site were withdrawn, considering the fact that there were six reactors and four spent fuel pools at the Daiichi site itself, this would mean the potential of being—losing control completely of this whole site. Even if the Self-Defense Forces, for example, were sent into the location, sent into the site, of course, they are not trained to deal with nuclear operations.
So, with no TEPCO staff, no TEPCO technicians on site, this would, in effect, mean actually abandoning all of these six reactors and seven pools on the Daiichi site, which would mean in turn that the worst-case scenario could actually become reality. And so, despite the, of course, huge risk that was there, I decided that it was very important to keep the technicians and the TEPCO workers on site for as long as possible to try and deal with the situation.
And why such a slow response from the Japanese authorities, with his government only prepared to evacuate those who lived in the immediate vicinity of the plant? Again, Kan’s response:
[U]pon hearing reports of the fact that the cooling functions at the plant had stopped, the first thing that we did was to evacuate those within the five-kilometer radius of the plant, and then, from here, expanding to the 10, 15, 20 and 30 kilometers, giving instructions for people to remain indoors. And this was done straightaway on the days of March 11 and March 12.
And so, upon the advice and recommendations of experts as we were thinking how to set these evacuation zones, and when and how, one of the considerations was that if the broader evacuation zone had been set right from the beginning, then those who were living closest to the plant, because of transportation and congestion, may not actually be able to leave the area. And so the decision was made to first evacuate those closest to the plant, so within the five-kilometer zone. And then, from there, we gradually expanded to 10, 15, 20 and so on.
At the time, I had been hearing also and we were aware of the instructions which had been given, for example, by the United States embassy and the embassies of other countries for their citizens within, for example, 50 miles to evacuate. However, in the case, of course, from the position of the Japanese government, there are so many citizens living within this area, so to move this number of people all at once was something we had to really consider how this could be feasible.
Finally, Naoto Kan was asked if he felt that the reason nuclear power is still being pushed, even after Fukushima, has to do with nuclear weapons and the production of plutonium? He replied:
In regards to considering countries which are considering or wanting to build new nuclear power plants, I believe that there are two main reasons for this. One is in the situation particularly of countries which are, for example, at the moment reliant on buying natural gas from Russia, wanting to be not controlled or not having to completely follow Russia for this, but to be energy-independent. And so, for example, the country of Estonia, which did actually decide not to build its nuclear power plant, but is perhaps one example of this. And the next major reason, I believe, is also because, of course, if nuclear power plants are built, this also does lead to creation of plutonium. And so, this leads to the latent capability to create nuclear weapons. And so, having this is also one reason that I believe some countries consider building or having nuclear power, so keeping the future possibility of this. And this is a reason which I think cannot be denied.
I personally believe that it is important to abolish both of these, both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. Of course, in the case of Japan, we do not possess nuclear weapons, so we’re working now here in Japan to prevent or to get rid of nuclear power plants.
This is one of the most interesting and illuminating political interviews I have watched in many years and I would recommend it, but especially to those who remain on the fence about this issue. As Japan tries to take stock of the scale of the Fukushima tragedy, the polluted spectre of its defunct remains ought to serve as both a stark and urgent warning to other nations committing themselves already or else contemplating any future reliant upon nuclear power.
Click here to read a full transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.
One of the video clips embedded above has since been removed from youtube. It was a CNN news report explaining some of the difficulties involved in removing spent fuel rods from the site. Here instead is another report from NHK World:
Two of the original posts of the interview were also later removed, so here is another upload of the Democracy Now! interview with Naoto Kan – now in two parts: