Naoto Kan, Japan’s former prime minister, has apologised for his role in the Fukushima nuclear crisis and said the government and its push for nuclear energy bore most of the responsibility for the disaster.
“The nuclear accident was caused by a nuclear plant which operated as national policy,” Kan said on Monday in front of a parliamentary inquiry into the cause of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
“I believe the biggest portion of blame lies with the state,” said Kan, who has come out strongly against nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster in March last year.
“As the person who was in charge of the country at the time of the accident, I sincerely apologise for my failure to stop it,” he added.
Kan stepped down in September after 15 months in office in which he had faced intense criticism over the government’s handling of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant where several reactors went into meltdown after being struck by a massive earthquake and a tsunami.
His administration was also lambasted for providing too little information to the public as reactors went into meltdown, apparently withholding computer models that showed how radiation from the venting reactors might spread.
Tens of thousands of people were later evacuated from an area around the plant after it began spewing radiation.
Many have still not been allowed home, with some areas expected to be uninhabitable for decades.
Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), the operator of the plant, was seen as confused and slow to release information in a response widely thought to have been inept.
TEPCO, one of the world’s largest utilities, whose tentacles of influence reach well inside Japan’s huge government bureaucracy, has also been criticised for ignoring warnings about the potential dangers from quake-generated tsunamis.
At the hearing on Monday, Kan attacked TEPCO for its failure to keep the government informed about the accident.
“I was thinking it was a battle against an invisible enemy. I thought, if the situation called for it, we might have to risk lives to contain it,” he told the hearing.
Kan’s public testimony came after a private panel probing the accident said in February the former prime minister’s aggressive involvement had averted a worse crisis.
That panel said it was Kan who ordered TEPCO, which refused to co-operate with the study, to keep men on site.
Experts concluded that if he had not stuck to his guns, Fukushima would have spiralled further out of control, with catastrophic consequences.
Andrew DeWit, professor of political economy at Rikkyo University‘s school of public policy studies, told Al Jazeera that transparency on the issues of nuclear energy was paramount.
“You’re talking about an energy complex with potentially catastrophic consequences in the event of failure, and not to have greater public involvement in determining what the proper energy mix is, and how it’s managed, seems to me to be very problematic.”
Kan’s then-top government spokesman, Yukio Edano, testified on Sunday.
Asked about Kan’s visit to the Fukushima plant, Edano said the prime minister had gone to the site because the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and TEPCO had seemingly “backtracked and wavered”.
“We had this awareness that someone who is more important than a vice industry minister (who was already at the scene) should go and take hold of the situation,” Edano said.
Edano, now the industry minister, also said he had refused a US offer to station nuclear experts in the prime minister’s office, citing sovereignty fears.