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Japan Will Overcome. Yet at What Cost...

17-03-2011, 14:00

 

 

THERE IS SOMETHING DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND about the recent events in Japan at first sight. The only country to have suffered from a nuclear attack and experienced the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki decided to develop the nuclear power industry, risking repeating the nightmares of the past. Indeed, building a whole network of NPPs in a seismically active zone seems totally insane to a normal person.

Today, thousands of people that are running away from Fukushima-1 say, "We knew that it was dangerous, yet we were told time and again that we are completely safe. They have lied to us all this time." Even the Japanese prime-minister flew into a rage when he could not get a rapid and precise report about the damaged reactor. "What's going on, finally?" he asked the operators of Tokyo Electric. Officials of big companies and ordinary Japanese people are expressing their extreme displeasure at how the government and the spokesmen of the nuclear power industry are informing the population. As a result, the authority of energy companies within the country has fallen lower than the rating of Japan and its stocks on the world's financial markets.

I am sure that Japan will overcome the effects of the disaster, all the more as unprecedented international assistance should be accorded to it. Japan will undoubtedly continue to rank third among the world's most developed countries. Yet at what cost?

In Japan, the nuclear industry is not just an influential business or a simple lobby that exerts pressure on the country's political elite. It is something more - a force that has been largely responsible for the Japanese economic miracle.

It would be hard to overestimate the dependence of rapidly developing industry on energy carriers. Japan does not have any hydrocarbon resources of its own. The country's political and business class made a conscious choice when opting for nuclear power to the detriment of the population's security. One can say that the competitiveness of Japaneseexports and the stability of its domestic market have been largely based on Japanese nuclear power. The carefully designed information policy, which strove to convince the Japanese people of the safety of nuclear power plants, resembled a large-scale public-private campaign.

The recent earthquake has little in common with the earthquake that hit Japan in 1995, after which all the destroyed highways were rebuilt in six months and rail transport was restored in nine months. And it is not simply a matter of the "nuclear factor" and the colossal force of the present natural disaster. The latest crisis hit a totally "different" Japan thathas an enormous public debt and that is being ousted from its traditional markets by China and other Asian countries. There is no doubt that Japanese companies will quickly restore production, yet the reconstruction of the country's infrastructure, the payment of social benefits, and the creation of jobs will cost the state billions of yen, which Tokyo simply does not have today. One can only hope that the USA will not abandon their ally, which is the main counterweight to China in Asia, to its plight. Still, Obama will have trouble printing more dollars to help Tokyo in view of domestic opposition and Europe's special financial considerations.

Still, the main headache of the Japanese government will be energy security. The role of the nuclear power industry is so great in Japan that a change of energy paradigm will be a very painful process, indeed. Yet Japan has no other choice. Otherwise, it will come to resemble a person frying an omelet on a volcano. Moreover, after suffering yet another time from "nuclear stress," the Japanese people are unlikely to support the further development of the nuclear program, even if it is just a matter of reconstructing damaged plants.

Strange though it may seem, Japan's difficulties may turn out to be a boon for Russian-Japanese relations. Russia is interested in diversifying its hydrocarbon exports. If Japan admits the necessity of reviewing its national energy portfolio, the two neighboring countries may begin to cooperate fruitfully. From the geopolitical standpoint, Russia, just like the USA, is not interested in the predominance in Asia of China, which, likea giant magnet, is attracting an ever greater share of international resources.

Today is probably not the right time for elaborating a new doctrine. One must save people and help the victims of the natural disaster in every possible way. Yet the time may soon come when Japan redresses the immediate effects of the earthquake and poses the question of how it should go on living.

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  • Category: Editor's Column
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