By MALCOLM FOSTER and MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Japan was woefully unprepared for last year's nuclear disaster, the country's former prime minister said Friday, and suggested that the crippled Fukushima plant should not have been built so close to the ocean on a tsunami-prone coast.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Naoto Kan acknowledged flaws in authorities' handling of the crisis, triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, including poor communication and coordination between nuclear regulators, utility officials and the government Kan headed at the time.
But he said the disaster — the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986 — laid bare a host of an even bigger man-made vulnerabilities in Japan's nuclear industry, from inadequate safety guidelines to crisis management, all of which he said need to be overhauled.
"Before 3/11, we were totally unprepared," he said. "Not only the hardware, but our system and the organization were not prepared. That's the biggest problem."
Kan said the disaster made clear to him that Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power, which supplied 30 percent of its electricity before the crisis, and has turned him into a believer in renewable energy.
He also acknowedged that information disclosure was sometimes slow and at times wrong, particularly in the days immediately after the crisis erupted. He blamed a lack of reliable data at the time and said the government never hid any information from the public.
Kan said the very location of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was problematic.
It was built close to the shore and about 33 feet (10 meters) above a coastline that has experienced numerous tsunamis over the centuries, including three within the last 120 years, all of them smaller than the one on March 11. That height was a level regulators and the utility operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., thought was safe.
But the tsunami that hit on March 11 was about 46 feet (14 meters) tall, and it knocked out the plant's power as well as emergency generators, located in the basement of the reactor buildings, sending three active reactors into meltdowns.
"If they had thought about it, they wouldn't have intentionally built it at a place so low," said Kan. "The plant was built by people who never imagined the risk of a major tsunami, and that's the very beginning of the problem."
"We should have taken more adequate safety steps, and we failed to do so," he added. "It was a big mistake and I must admit that (the accident) was due to human error."
Since the crisis, Japan has decided to lower its reliance on nuclear power, reversing its plans to boost it to 50 percent by 2030. Most of its 54 reactors are currently off-line, undergoing special tests or shut down indefinitely.
The accident displaced about 100,000 people who lived near the plant and has raised fears of contamination in everything from fruit and vegetables to fish and water. In December, the government declared the plant was stable, although it estimates that it will take about 40 years to completely decommission the plant.