Former Japanese PM Naoto Kan on the Fukushima Disaster

A Changing View of Nuclear Power

My father was an engineer, and when I was a child, he told me the story of Prometheus, a famous Greek myth in which Zeus grows angry at Prometheus for giving humans the wisdom of fire, knowledge capable of bringing on disaster. As punishment, Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle pecks incessantly at his liver. Today, I cannot help but remember that story when I think about the development of nuclear technology, a modern-day incarnation of the wisdom of fire.

In college, I studied science and technology, and ever since, I have had a great admiration for the Pugwash conferences, a forum dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons (the group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993). That is because nuclear weapons, which have the power to kill large numbers of people indiscriminately, are fundamentally at odds with the purpose of science, which is to contribute to people's well-being. To put it another way: Nuclear weapons contradict the very nature of humanity. In fact, this concern was the major reason why I aspired to be a political leader.

Long before the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, I knew there were serious unresolved issues regarding the safety of nuclear power and the disposal of radioactive waste. I took the position that these issues could be overcome by technology. With adequate safeguards, nuclear power plants could be operated safely and utilized wisely. Especially in recent years, in order to prevent global warming, nuclear power has been an effective replacement to power plants that feed on fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere. In fact, before Fukushima, Japan had a plan to expand its network of nuclear plants.

Then, while I was serving as prime minister, the Tohoku earthquake occurred at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2011. Immediately, all reactors in operation at Fukushima Daiichi were shut down; nuclear activity there came to a halt. An hour after the earthquake, I received a report from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) stating that several power generators at the Fukushima site were experiencing a total loss of power. An hour after that, there was an accident that suspended the cooling function. The earthquake had toppled the steel towers supporting power transmission lines. Saltwater damage rendered the emergency diesel generators inoperable. All power sources had been lost.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis