For a man who has spent almost every waking hour over the past half year shepherding Japan through one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, Japanese State Minister in Charge of Nuclear Accident Settlement and Prevention Goshi Hosono wears his worries lightly.
The youthful and telegenic government pointman on the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant clean-up has been in his post since shortly after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. He has outlasted one Japanese prime minister and counts as a survivor in the revolving door world of Japanese politics, a place peopled largely by faceless men in gray suits who are all but unknown in the world outside the debating chamber.
Despite a series of setbacks at Fukushima, including the revelation last week that spontaneous fission had been detected inside a reactor that was supposed to be all but extinct, Hosono is upbeat.
“We have come a long way in our efforts to control the accident,” he said in an interview. “It was the emergency workers at the plant who have contributed to it the most. We are finally seeing the goal of cold shutdown in sight. The workers’ efforts must be highly applauded.”
Hosono says the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) — the villain of the piece for many in Japan — are on course to declare this phase of the recovery over by the end of the year.
The focus is now shifting from stabilizing damaged reactors to cleaning up the environment after leaks and explosions spewed radiation into the air, soil and sea.
The atomic crisis — the worst the planet has seen since Chernobyl exploded 25 years ago — has not directly killed anyone, but the natural disaster that sparked it claimed 20,000 lives.
With thousands of people still unable to return to their homes in a large area around the plant, and suspicions over the safety of food produced in the wider region, a weary public remains skeptical about the government’s efforts.
“The immediate challenge still is to confirm the cold shutdown. Until then, we will ensure we go on step by step without letting our guard down,” said Hosano, who plans to allow journalists to enter the battered plant for the first time this week.
A bright star in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan firmament, Hosono became an adviser to the then-Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan in January. He was appointed to his current position in late June.
When the unpopular Kan fell on his sword in August, Hosono was one of the few members of the Cabinet to survive the transition to life under new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
The 40-year-old Hosono, a graduate of Kyoto University and married father-of-one, is a relative youngblood in Japan’s often turgid politics.
He is also verbally nimble in a world where gray political heavyweights have an almost jaw--dropping ability to say the wrong thing and get themselves into trouble.
However, Hosono’s 12-year political career has not been without incident. An extramarital fling with an attractive TV anchor saw him adorning the pages of gossip magazines for all the wrong reasons in 2006.
He is upfront about the fact that the Japanese government has not always done — or been seen to do — desperately well since the crisis erupted.
“In retrospect we had a pretty tough time in the immediate aftermath of March 11. Frankly speaking, I don’t think the disaster preparations before the accident were good enough,” he said. “The power company lacked substantial preparation, and the administration had many flaws in its system.”