Experts with Judgment and Mettle Essential, Says Former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono

Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, The Yomiuri Shimbun spoke with Goshi Hosono, who served as a special adviser to the prime minister in the then Democratic Party of Japan administration when the unprecedented disaster occurred. The following is excerpted from the interview.

At the time of the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, I dealt with various crisis responses as a special adviser to the prime minister. The toughest moment I had was on March 16 when the Self-Defense Forces could not dump water on the damaged No. 3 reactor by helicopter.

The building that housed the No. 3 reactor had exploded two days earlier, on March 14. I was waiting for the water dumping to start at the integrated headquarters set up within TEPCO’s head office in Tokyo. When I got a phone call from then Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa who said, “The radiation dose is so high we have given up dumping water,” I felt a chill of horror, as if the backbone of the state were breaking.

Nevertheless, we managed to go ahead with dumping water on the reactor building on March 17, and I think that action taken by the SDF saved Japan. As the police and firefighting units were also able to spray water from outside the building, the situation at last calmed down a little.

Given the series of responses following the nuclear accident, I realized that we should work out a worst-case scenario. I suggested this idea to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who asked Shunsuke Kondo, then chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, to compile a worst-case scenario report (See below).

The report was shared by senior officials of the Prime Minister’s Office, but the documents were collected at the site and not made public. As the scenario conceived of things deemed unthinkable, there was a fear that if it was made public, it would cause unrest among the people.

One of the reasons we needed the worst-case scenario was that the United States had expressed doubt that no water remained in the pool of spent nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor facility and that it had become impossible to cool down the spent fuel.

‘The place you come from’

The Japanese government, for its part, had to imagine the worst-case scenario in advance and make the first move. While sharing the imagined scenario in which we became unable to cool the spent fuel in the pool at the No. 4 reactor facility, the government also explained to the U.S. side measures such as reinforcement work to prevent the pool from collapsing. We even collected water from the pool and showed it to them. Because we gave such detailed explanations, the U.S. side began to view Japan differently.

In June, I was appointed minister for the restoration from and prevention of nuclear accidents, and began to whole-heartedly tackle the issue of decontaminating the areas surrounding the nuclear plant, in addition to problems related to inside the nuclear plant. Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato said to me, “While working as a minister, I would like you to think of Fukushima as the place you come from,” which was a memorable remark.

In dealing with the nuclear accident, I had the opportunity to get in contact with many experts, and I was convinced that what is required of these experts is not only technical knowledge but also the mettle to judge the situation within a limited time frame. Although 10 years have passed since this massive disaster, the reality is that there are few such experts in Japan, making it a matter of urgency that we nurture them.

Profile: Former Environment Minister Goshi Hosono

Hosono held such positions as special adviser to the prime minister, minister of state for nuclear power policy and administration, and environment minister under the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. Presently, he is an independent Diet member, but a special member of the Liberal Democratic Party faction led by Toshihiro Nikai. Hosono has been elected to the House of Representatives seven times. He is 49 years old.

Worst-case scenario report

Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, to produce this report for the government so that it could cope with the nuclear accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It was submitted to Kan on March 25, 2011. It contained such hypothetical scenarios as the spent nuclear fuel pool at the No. 4 reactor facility becoming impossible to cool, thus letting large quantities of radioactive materials out of the facility, and causing areas within a 170-kilometer radius from the nuclear plant to be subject to “compulsory relocation,” and areas within a 250-kilometer radius, including those in the Tokyo metropolitan zone, to be subject to “voluntary relocation.”