I had to act to save the world after Fukushima, says former premier
It reads like a dispatch from the pages of Godzilla, who was a fictional metaphor for nuclear weapons, wreaking destruction with a blast of radiation from his mouth: the world's most populated metropolis is threatened with fallout from an out-of-control nuclear power plant.
But such was the real-life situation facing greater Tokyo, a city of 35 million people, after last year's triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi complex 250km away. And for many, the unlikely hero of the capital's most compelling drama since the Second World War is the-then Prime Minister, Naoto Kan. Widely criticised for his handling of the March disaster, Mr Kan has nevertheless been hailed for his decision to confront plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) and stop it abandoning its six reactors and seven lethal nuclear fuel pools. "It is for history to evaluate what took place, but as Prime Minister I just did what I could," he said in his first interview with a British newspaper since stepping down last year after turning against nuclear power.
He feared what the-then Cabinet spokesman Yukio Edano called a "demonic chain reaction", meaning Daiichi could trigger meltdowns elsewhere. "If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself," Mr Edano said earlier this year. Mr Kan said he was haunted by an image of a deserted, uninhabitable greater Tokyo if the crisis spun out of control. "I assumed it would have brought devastating destruction in East Japan."
The key moment in the crisis came at about 3am on 15 March, four days after a huge earthquake and tsunami struck, when Mr Kan heard startling news from the government's economy minister, Banri Kaieda: Tepco officials and 700 workers were preparing to abandon the Daiichi complex.
Mr Kan went to the utility's headquarters about a kilometre away. He stormed into a conference room to find it crowded with 200 people. "Why on earth are there so many people here?" he yelled. "Important decisions should be made by five or six people." He trained his fire on chairman Tsunehiko Katsumata and the firm's top executives. There was "absolutely no way" the workers could pull out. Abandoning the plant would create a catastrophe "twice or three times worse than Chernobyl," he said. If people had to die, they would die. It was no longer a question of only Japan. The disaster would hit the world. The Prime Minister left behind him a room of chastened Tepco executives. Later they would deny there was any plan to abandon Daiichi.
Today, Mr Kan says: "In a chemical plant, once everything burns, the plant sort of returns to normal. Nuclear reactors don't return to normal... It wasn't like fleeing a fire that you could come back to when it had died down."
The verdict on Mr Kan's confrontation came last month. Speaking on behalf of an independent panel of 30 professors, journalists and lawyers who spent six months probing the accident, lawyer Akihisa Shiozaki characterised the overall response to the crisis as "crude, reactionary, but lucky".
Mr Kan's move to stop the pullout was critical. "The worst would have happened... Fukushima would totally have gone out of control."
Mr Kan quit last August after urging Japan to scrap plans to build 14 more nuclear reactors. There is speculation that he was hounded from power by Japan's powerful nuclear industry and the conservative media, a charge he denies.
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