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.