Learn more about our four-part investigative series on Fukushima's ongoing fallout.
Naoto Kan was staring down the prospect of Tokyo becoming a ghost town.
Immediately after Japan was socked by the one-two punch of a major earthquake and a tsunami in March 2011, the prime minister’s advisers were telling him that almost a third of the country's population might need to evacuate.
“I had experts simulate a worse-case scenario showing how far the accident could spread,” he told America Tonight though a translator. “If conditions were to deteriorate, there were 50 million people within a 250-kilometer radius of Fukushima Daiichi, all those people would have to evacuate.”
As Japan’s nuclear nightmare began to unfold, Kan learned that the nuclear plant had lost all power and all cooling capabilities. Within days, three reactors at Fukushima had melted down and multiple hydrogen explosions ripped through the plant.
People in Japan and around the world held their breaths as the disaster was slowly brought under control.
“We were walking a knife’s edge, wondering whether the worst-case scenario would occur or not,” Kan said.
A wrenching reversal
With few natural resources of its own, Japan had been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of nuclear energy. At that moment, it was the world’s third largest producer of nuclear power, with its reactors generating around 30 percent of the country’s electricity. And Japan has made ambitious targets for its carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decades, based largely on a big expansion in its nuclear program. But that close call prompted the prime minister to suddenly reassess everything he believed about nuclear energy.
“I came to believe that we should halt further operation of nuclear energy that entailed such huge risks,” Kan said.
The human fallout from the nuclear accident also haunted Kan, as he met people from the disaster zone who had been forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods with no notice.
“The majority of people were still far from where they used to live, their families were torn apart, and they were leading a very harsh life,” he said. “I felt that the biggest political responsibility for it all lay with me. We can’t have another nuclear accident. I came to believe that the only way to keep that from happening, is to get rid of nuclear energy itself.”
The economic reality
After leaving office later in 2011, Kan made it his mission to rid Japan of nuclear energy. Four other former prime ministers – including the influential Junichiro Koizumi – have since joined him. The political movement he helped build has forced all of Japan’s 50 reactors offline. Their success, however, has come at a price.
“They went scrambling to replace [nuclear power] in order to avoid blackouts, and brownouts, by firing up coal, [liquid natural gas] and, to a lesser extent, oil-fired thermal plants,” said Paul Scalise, a Japanese energy policy expert at the University of Tokyo.
The sudden shock of losing nuclear has driven up Japan’s electricity prices. Greenhouse gas emissions have spiked and the country has a trade deficit for the first time in decades, due to massive imports of fossil fuels.
And such a surge in dependency on foreign fuel means there are national security questions to consider.
“The national security reasons basically stem from Japan's over-reliance on fossil fuels, because it has no viable natural resources of its own to increase dealing with its economic demand for electric power,” Scalise said. “Consequently, the industry would like to see these reactors get online sooner rather than later. “
But Japan’s nuclear industry has mounted a drive to revive its reactors. Current Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has joined forces with industry leaders in reversing the Kan administration’s efforts to phase out nuclear power by 2030.
“Based upon the lessons of the nuclear accident, we must create a new culture to improve safety,” Abe said in a speech last year to Japan’s Parliament. “And in addition, after making sure that it is safe, we must restart nuclear energy.”
Scalise thinks at least a few of Japan’s nuclear plants will come back online in the next two years as the economic pressures continue to mount.
A local fight
Massive protests by an overwhelming anti-nuclear public have failed to sway Abe’s administration. So local politicians have taken up the fight.
Niigata Prefecture is home to the world’s largest nuclear complex. Like the Fukushima plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is also overseen by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.
Hirohiko Izumida, the governor of Niigata, has stymied TEPCO’s efforts to restart the plant’s seven idled reactors, saying the company has engaged in “institutional lying” about what it knew when during the Fukushima disaster.
“TEPCO knew on March 12 (2011) that fuel had melted down, but they continued to lie for almost two months,” he told America Tonight through a translator. “They haven’t made an accounting of the past. We first need to determine why they lied, and how to rectify the situation. If we don’t do that, I worry that another accident could happen again.”
Izumida said Japan’s largest utility has to acknowledge mistakes made at Fukushima before he’ll let them restart the plant.
“TEPCO needs to reflect upon the experience of the Fukushima accident, and come up with a policy based on that reflection,” he said.
The future of nuclear
In spite of resistance from local leaders like Izumida, the size and power of anti-nuclear protests have dwindled in Japan.
“Those who are against nuclear energy don’t speak up, so the anti-nuclear movement doesn’t increase,” Eiji Oga, a protester, told America Tonight.
While nuclear power is on pause in Japan, vested interests have set their sights globally. Abe recently signed agreements to sell nuclear reactors to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and India. And major manufacturers like Hitachi are vying for a share of the $1 trillion international market, as 370 new reactors are slated to be built by 2030.
Japanese nuclear manufacturers received around $48 billion in international orders in 2012. New technology and reactor designs, they say, ensure that this time will be different.
“We learned a lot from what happened,” Hitachi engineer Masahito Yoshimura told America Tonight, “and we applied what we think are the necessary countermeasures into our technology, so the technology is always improving to overcome any events that happened in the past.”
Protester against nuclear power
But the push to restart nuclear energy comes too soon for people like Sato, a decontamination worker who was exposed to radiation yet saw his “danger pay” skimmed off by organized crime groups.
“If they were truly sorry, why are they saying that they will restart the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant?” he told America Tonight. “First they need to resolve the problems at Fukushima Daiichi.”
The same goes for Masami Yoshizawa, the cattle rancher who risked radiation to stay in the hot zone with his cattle, which are now contaminated and unsellable.
“Simply put, there is no hope for our village of Namie,” he said. “The government wants to take us back to the age of nuclear energy. They want to restart the reactors, export nuclear technology and put a lid on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.”
For Kan, his successor’s administration is learning the wrong lesson from the tragedy of Fukushima.
“Until 3/11, I felt the same way about nuclear energy that Prime Minister Abe does,” he said. “But since realizing that my way of thinking had been wrong, I no longer feel we should be selling nuclear energy either domestically or internationally.”
He is confident that now is the time to transition to renewables.
“Japan can supply sufficient energy without nuclear power,” he said. “Over half of Japanese citizens are demanding that, but whether or not that voice will be crushed will be decided in the next one or two years.”
And Kan is confident about who will prevail.
“I believe that in the not-so-distant future, Japan will stop using nuclear power,” he predicts. “I believe that to be true.”