Fukushima: Tokyo was on the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, Admits Former Prime Minister
Five years on from the tsunami, the former Japanese prime minister says the country came within a “paper-thin margin” of a nuclear disaster
By Andrew Gilligan
Japan’s prime minister at the time of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami has revealed that the country came within a “paper-thin margin” of a nuclear disaster requiring the evacuation of 50 million people.
In an interview with The Telegraph to mark the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, Naoto Kan described the panic and disarray at the highest levels of the Japanese government as it fought to control multiple meltdowns at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
He said he considered evacuating the capital, Tokyo, along with all other areas within 160 miles of the plant, and declaring martial law. “The future existence of Japan as a whole was at stake,” he said. “Something on that scale, an evacuation of 50 million, it would have been like a losing a huge war.”
Mr Kan admitted he was frightened and said he got “no clear information” out of Tepco, the plant’s operator. He was “very shocked” by the performance of Nobuaki Terasaka, his own government’s key nuclear safety adviser. “We questioned him and he was unable to give clear responses,” he said.
“We asked him – do you know anything about nuclear issues? And he said no, I majored in economics.”
Mr Terasaka, the director of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was later sacked. Another member of Mr Kan’s crisis working group, the then Tepco chairman, Tsunehisa Katsumata, was last week indicted on charges of criminal negligence for his role in the disaster.
The 9.0 magnitude quake, the largest ever recorded in Japan, triggered a gigantic tsunami which broke through the plant’s flood defences, cutting off power to its control room and the coolant systems of its nuclear reactors.
Deprived of cooling, radioactive fuel, in three of the plant’s six reactors melted down. Explosive hydrogen gas built up, blowing holes in the reactor containment building and allowing radioactivity to escape.
“When we got the report that power had been cut and the coolant had stopped working, that sent a shiver down my spine,” Mr Kan said. “From March 11, when the incident happened, until the 15th, the effects [of radioactive contamination] were expanding geographically.
“From the 16th to the 20th we were able to halt the spread of radiation but the margin left for us was paper-thin. If the [fuel rods] had burnt through [in] all six reactors, that would definitely have affected Tokyo.
“From a very early stage I had a very high concern for Tokyo. I was forming ideas for a Tokyo evacuation plan in my head. In the 1923 earthquake the government ordered martial law – I did think of the possibility of having to set up such emergency law if it really came down to it.
“We were only able to avert a 250-kilometre (160-mile) evacuation zone [around the plant] by a wafer-thin margin, thanks to the efforts of people who risked their lives. Next time, we might not be so lucky.”
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