“If the politicians are willing to cooperate, 100% renewable energy becomes a perfectly achievable goal.”


ProfileNaoto Kan
Naoto Kan served as the 94th Prime Minister of Japan from June 2010 until September 2011. He remains a member of the House of Representatives and is a senior advisor to the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. As Prime Minister at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, he was responsible for overseeing the disaster response. The experience of Fukushima led him to become the first Japanese Prime Minister to advocate complete denuclearisation and a transition to renewable energy.

“Japanese society had believed that a major accident would not occur at a nuclear power plant, and that premise had been responsible for the construction of fifty-four reactors in Japan. Our laws, our institutions, our government and economy, even our culture had revolved around the conviction that a nuclear accident would not occur. One could say we were totally unprepared, so when an accident actually happened we were unable to handle it. Because we had presumed that a major accident would not occur, there was no system in place for the management of a crisis. When politicians and electric companies and the responsible ministries say they had not imagined it could happen, they are, in some sense, telling the truth. And they make that assertion while admonishing themselves.”

So writes former Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan in ‘My Nuclear Nightmare’, in which he reflects on the response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011.

Technology with the potential for unlimited damage

An unreleased ‘worst case scenario’ drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi raised the possibility of an evacuation zone covering a 250 km radius around the plant. If this worst case scenario had come to pass, the evacuation zone would have encompassed the entire Tohoku region to the north and most of the Kanto region, including the Tokyo metropolitan area, to the south, and necessitated the evacuation of around 50 million people. As Kan recalls:

“It felt as if the science fiction novel ‘Japan Sinks’ was becoming a reality. There was a terrifying possibility that vast swathes of Japan could become uninhabitable, leaving the population fighting for a place to live. Although I understood theoretically that nuclear power had the potential to cause a disaster comparable to something from the world of fiction, nothing could have prepared me for being faced with that possibility in reality. Fortunately, things never got that far, but even so, the fact remains that many citizens of Fukushima prefecture were forced to flee their hometowns and live as evacuees. I’m very conscious of the fact that many people continue to struggle in difficult circumstances to this day.”

While acknowledging the heroic work of the staff who battled the conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi site in an attempt to contain the scale of the disaster, Kan reflects that it was ultimately “a combination of good fortune” that prevented the damage from affecting a much wider area. The possibility of 50 million or more evacuees was not far-fetched speculation, and in fact came very close to becoming reality.

The nature of nuclear technology means that once we lose control, there is little that we are able to do to intervene. When safety systems do not function as intended, we are at the mercy of fate.

The nuclear project enabled by a lack of concern

Following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, as leaked radiation continued to spread across the region, the functional inadequacy of operational systems, the slapdash and ineffective accident response measures, and other failings of the nuclear industry were exposed for all to see.

For Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operators of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, learning from the accident did not mean deciding that the time had come to end its reliance on nuclear power, but rather attempting to shore up safety measures with a ‘defence in depth’ strategy. The 11 power companies who own nuclear plants in Japan have estimated the total cost of implementing these heightened safety measures to be in excess of five trillion yen (48 billion USD). Estimates for the total cost of the Fukushima Daiichi accident range as high as 81 trillion yen (774 billion USD). Needless to say, the damage caused by the accident is not something that could ever be remedied with cash alone.

We need to ask ourselves whether technology that requires such astronomical expense just to try and prevent accidents, let alone pay for the cleanup when an accident ultimately does occur, is really justified. Do we need this source of power so badly that we are prepared to accept not only its economic costs but also the potential for irreparable damage when something goes wrong?

Kan found himself asking the same questions.

Contradictory words and conflicted authorities

“The expression ‘the peaceful use of atomic energy’ is often brought up in attempts to justify nuclear power. Although I was never an outspoken proponent, until the accident I had accepted Japan’s basic energy strategy, which has nuclear power positioned at its core, so in that sense I was in the position of promoting nuclear energy.”

The emphasis on the word ‘peaceful’ is directly related to the fact that Japan is the only country ever to have been subjected to the wartime use of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become synonymous with the tragedy of war, but ten years after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the time has come to ask ourselves whether there can be any such thing as the ‘peaceful’ exploitation of nuclear technology. Regulations are put in place as a framework to allow nuclear plants to operate, but is nuclear power something that can ever be ‘regulated’ to the point of absolute safety?

The establishment of appropriate regulations requires people with sufficient understanding of the technology. Until the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the authority charged with overseeing safety at Japan’s nuclear power plants was under the umbrella of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the very same branch of government that was promoting nuclear power as a strategic national project. The relationship was conflicted to say the least.

What is more, government roles in nuclear safety oversight were often handed out to alumni of the power companies, resulting in an incestuous relationship between the regulators and the regulatees. This created what is often referred to as the ‘nuclear village’ in Japan, although by no means is it an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. The result was a compromised regulatory authority that was not fit for purpose.

Gregory Jaczko was head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Like Kan, his position on nuclear regulation has diverged from that of the government, and he is now in favour of abolishing nuclear power altogether. Fukushima Daiichi prompted him to reconsider the risks posed by nuclear power, leading him to uncover serious deficiencies in nuclear safety in the U.S. When he started calling for stricter regulation, he found himself under pressure from the American ‘nuclear village’, and ultimately he resigned from his position.

More recently, Jaczko has written in the Washington Post that “fission reactors have a dark side, too: If the energy they produce is not closely controlled, they can fail in catastrophic ways that kill people and render large tracts of land uninhabitable. Nuclear power is also the path to nuclear weapons, themselves an existential threat. The real choice now is between saving the planet and saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet.” Kan has met Jaczko on several occasions, and cites him as an influence.

“When I first met Jaczko, his position was very clear. He told me that although we don’t know when and where the next accident will be, we can be certain that it will happen somewhere. For this reason, nuclear plants should not be built anywhere where people live close enough to be affected by an accident. As he had been on the front line of nuclear regulation himself, his words made a deep impression on me. If we apply that principle to Japan, with its limited available space, the conclusion must be that there is no location suitable for a nuclear plant. If Jaczko’s philosophy were to be adopted around the globe, nuclear power would soon be a thing of the past.”

After the disaster, finding a new way forward

Kan has spoken out in favour of renewable energy as a replacement for nuclear power. Before resigning as Prime Minister, he introduced laws to create Japan’s Feed in Tariff (FIT) system, creating a clear path to allowing renewable energy to flourish. The introduction of the FIT has resulted in a solar-led explosion in renewable energy in Japan over the past ten years.

“Agricultural solar sharing is another renewable energy initiative that I’m hoping to promote. Agricultural land can be used for solar power generation while still allowing the land to to be farmed. The countryside has huge potential for clean energy production going forward.”

Were solar sharing to be implemented on 40% of Japan’s agricultural land, it is estimated that when combined with existing renewable energy capacity, Japan’s annual energy consumption needs could be entirely covered. Meanwhile, the current Suga administration is looking to ramp up nuclear power generation by restarting idle plants and pushing ahead with new construction projects, cynically framing the strategy within the debate over reducing carbon emissions. However, multiple environmental groups in Japan have demonstrated the feasibility of meeting Japan’s demand for electricity without relying on either nuclear or fossil fuels. Polls suggest that the majority of Japanese people have no great affection for nuclear power, and would be happy to see nuclear plants shuttered as long as it was guaranteed that the power supply would not face shortages as a result. The only thing that is needed is the political will to put in place a suitable power distribution system, maintains Kan.

“So far, various renewable energy initiatives have been implemented in Japan, but only on a comparatively small scale. If we are to scale up, we need the government to move proactively. If the politicians are willing to cooperate, 100% renewable energy becomes a perfectly achievable goal.”

Wherever there are nuclear power plants in Japan, the surrounding communities develop an economic dependency on the plant, and the financial incentives can prove hard to resist. Kan hopes that renewable energy will be the key to weaning these provincial economies away from their dependency on the nuclear industry. In particular, he believes renewables could become the turning point for economic recovery in Fukushima prefecture in the post-accident era.

“Over the past ten years, a huge amount of solar generation capacity has already been added in Fukushima prefecture. Energy systems combining solar generation and hydrogen are also coming online. I strongly hope that Fukushima will rise again as a model region central to the expansion of clean energy in Japan.”

“Children who were ten years old at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake are now turning twenty. If we look at the past ten years in the context of these children growing up, I feel a strong sense of potential in these young lives. It’s now ten years since the disaster, and I hope that this year we will see political energy being put into making 2021 a new start for the region and its citizens as they move toward a brighter future.”

Politics is not something that steams ahead of its own accord. Ultimately, our choices and demands as citizens control the political narrative. It is up to us to decide where we want to steer our country. We cannot leave this job to others. Unless we are prepared to grasp the rudder ourselves, we will never get to where we want to go.

  • *My Nuclear Nightmare: Leading Japan through the Fukushima Disaster to a Nuclear-Free Future, Naoto Kan, Cornell University Press, English edition published 2017. Originally published in Japanese as “TOUDEN FUKUSHIMA GENPATSU JIKO SOURIDAIJIN TO SHITE KANGAETA KOTO”, Gentousha Shinsho, 2012
  • **The former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). NISA was abolished the year after the Fukushima Daiichi accident and its role transferred to the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) under the Ministry of Environment so as to be independent of METI.