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Former Japanese PM Naoto Kan: 'Fukushima radically changed my perspective'

How has the Fukushima disaster changed Japan? Former PM Naoto Kan talks to DW about the influence of the nuclear industry lobby while criticizing the current government for its push to restart the idled nuclear reactors.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, causing massive devastation and ultimately sending three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into meltdown. It was the worst atomic accident in a generation. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated around the plant amid fears of rising radiation, with about 120,000 people still unable to return to their homes four years later.

The man in charge of running the country at the time was Naoto Kan. The DPJ politician, who served as PM between June 2010 and September 2011, was confronted with the challenge of tackling the threefold disaster. Despite being heavily involved in efforts to respond to the crisis and adopting a hands-on approach, Kan faced widespread criticism over his handling of the situation.

In the aftermath of the incident, Kan turned his back on nuclear power and became a staunch proponent of renewable energy. He has also been at the forefront of efforts to cut Japan's reliance on nuclear power, which accounted for around 30 percent of the country's electricity needs prior to the disaster.

Fukushima Daiichi Atomkraftwerk

Kan: 'Before the disaster, I believed that no serious nuclear accident could take place in Japan'

Although all of the country's 48 nuclear reactors have remained offline since the Fukushima meltdown, atomic energy in the world's third largest economy is set for a revival. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has long been pushing to bring some of the country's reactors back online, arguing they are crucial to economic growth and could reduce the nation's dependence on imported fossil fuels as well as contribute to slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, public opposition to nuclear energy remains steadfast, as the disaster continues to loom in the Japanese psyche and many harbor safety concerns in the earthquake-prone country.

In an exclusive DW interview, Naoto Kan talks about his views on government plans to restart nuclear reactors, what Japan can learn from Germany's nuclear phase-out, and why Japan has no choice but to invest in alternative sources of energy.

DW: Four years on, what lessons should Japan learn from this disaster and have any of them been realized?

Naoto Kan: Unfortunately, I have the impression that neither the Japanese public nor the experts have learned the right lessons from the disaster. If the accident had been a bit more severe, we would have had to evacuate people within a radius of 250 kilometers for a long period of time. It would have also affected the Tokyo area, and thus an estimated 50 million people. Such colossal damage usually occurs only after a crushing defeat in war.

But many Japanese people and experts are closing their eyes to this enormous risk. They either do not want to think about it or prefer to forget about the accident as soon as possible. This is the prevailing general mood in the country.

How has the Fukushima crisis changed your view of nuclear energy and the risks involved, especially in such an earthquake-prone country?

Before the disaster, I believed that no serious nuclear accident could take place in Japan as our technology was very advanced and we just had to handle it with care. But despite our state-of-art technology, Fukushima witnessed a nuclear meltdown, and more than 200,000 people had to be evacuated.

If the extent of the accident had been slightly larger, then Japan would have been thrown into chaos for 20 to 30 years. The accident radically changed my perspective. I now consider nuclear energy to be the most dangerous form of energy, and the risks associated with it are too great for us to continue generating atomic power.

I have been trying to spread this view as much as possible both at home and abroad. Given that Japan finds itself in an earthquake-prone zone, the risks are much higher here than in other countries. If high tension power lines collapse, it could cut power supply to nuclear reactors. Similarly, it would be difficult to find a suitable location for nuclear waste storage and disposal in the country.

What is your view on the Shinzo Abe-led government's plans to restart nuclear plants?

I am against restarting Japan's nuclear reactors. On the one hand, the exact causes of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima and its far-reaching implications have not been well understood. On the other hand, the resumption of nuclear energy increases the danger of another accident in the country.

Is there currently a real alternative to the use of nuclear energy in Japan?

Symbolbild Alternative Energien

'Japan can produce as much electricity with renewable sources as it had generated with nuclear power plants prior to the Fukushima incident'

At present, no nuclear energy is being produced in Japan, but we are still generating enough power to meet our needs. Although we are currently relying on oil and natural gas for electricity generation, a shift to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind could happen in the long run.

The number of commercial energy producers who want to generate alternative energy has risen enormously, since I brought forward a law on renewable energy and ensured fixed feed-in-tariffs in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. I am therefore convinced that in ten years, Japan can produce as much electricity with renewable sources as it had generated with nuclear power plants prior to the Fukushima incident.

What do you make of the allegations that the Japanese nuclear industry has a strong influence over politics and the media in Japan?

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, many Japanese believed that nuclear energy was inexpensive and safe. But since the accident, it's become clear that nuclear power plants are dangerous and the cost of running them is high compared to other forms of energy. This realization should have led the country to abandon nuclear power.

However, the industry has not been willing to give up its existing privileges and profit margins. It therefore tries to influence politicians and the media by organizing campaigns in favor of nuclear energy.

Japan Kernkraftwerk in Ohi

Claims by the nuclear power lobbyists that atomic energy is cheaper than oil or natural gas are simply false

Although more than 50 percent of the Japanese population support phasing out nuclear energy, such a proposition still lacks the backing of a majority in the Japanese parliament. I want to change this and be at the forefront of efforts to curb the power of the nuclear lobby.

In your view, are Japanese nuclear plants now better prepared now than before to withstand another such a disaster?

Additional security measures against natural disasters have been taken such as raising the location of emergency generators at nuclear plants, and increasing the protective walls around them. But I believe these measures don't go far enough. That is because one of the reasons for the disaster was the collapse of the external power supply. Earthquakes could strike down high tension power lines on any given day.

Furthermore, in Japan, there is neither a nuclear waste storage site nor any plans or decisions in this regard. Spent fuel rods are usually stored in pools close to the reactors. But the space is scarce, and the issue of final disposal hasn't been resolved yet. So even if Japan's nuclear reactors are back on line, the waste generated from them could not be disposed of.

Japan's anti-nuclear movement seems to have been losing ground in recent months. What are the reasons for this and what do you urge the Japanese people to do?

The Japanese anti-nuclear movement has not lost strength in the past few months. Even today, opinion polls show that a large majority of the population wants to phase out nuclear power. It is because of this strong public opposition that the Abe-led government has so far been unable to restart nuclear reactors.

Unfortunately, nuclear energy failed to become a key issue during the three elections that have been held since the disaster, with economic issues taking center stage. Even though 60 to 70 percent of the population backs a nuclear energy phase-out, 60 to 70 percent of MPs support nuclear power. It is necessary for us to challenge this distortion and make MPs change their stance and truly represent public opinion.

Anti-Atom-Demonstrationen zwei Jahre nach Fukushima

Kan: 'The Japanese anti-nuclear movement has not lost strength in the past few months'

There are many who argue that it would be too costly to simply give up the use of nuclear energy. What can Japan learn from Germany in terms of making the transition from nuclear energy to alternative sources of energy?

Claims by the nuclear power lobbyists that atomic energy is cheaper than oil or natural gas are simply false. This has already been acknowledged by many experts. As soon as you take into account potential compensation claims and the costs of permanently disposing of the nuclear waste, you will find that it is more expensive than oil or natural gas.

Both Germany and Japan have state-of the-art technology as far as energy production from renewable sources is concerned. Unfortunately, we in Japan began twenty years after Germany set up tariffs to regulate how this renewable energy is to be fed into the power grid. In Japan, this only happened after the Fukushima disaster.

Zwischenlager in Gorleben

Japan faces a challenge in terms of nuclear waste disposal, says Kan

But in the more than three years since the incident, applications have been made for alternative power stations such as solar and wind power plants, which can generate an output of 70 million kWh.

Although we have started late, we want to adopt renewable energy in the same way Germany has. Germany is a role model for Japan. Many people in Germany have been involved in various ways in the development and generation of alternative energy sources.

This has encouraged policy makers to phase out nuclear power. I would therefore like to know more about how the Germans arrived at this conviction and made the decision to abandon nuclear energy.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is currently a member of Japan's House of Representatives for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.