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Dmitry Streltsov

Doctor of History, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the MGIMO University, RIAC expert

The year that has passed after the Fukushima tragedy gives ample food for reflection and understanding of its lessons. The disaster highlighted a long-standing crisis of the entire political system of Japan and raised the question of its fundamental reform. An important lesson was the deflating myth of the nuclear-power facilities safety in a country located in an earthquake-prone zone.

Much has been done over the year to repair the immediate damage of the disaster – waste disposal, decontamination, restoration of industrial potential. However, it would take years and decades to resolve more long-term problems. The only obvious thing is that the country has entered a post-Fukushima period of its development which would be entirely different in all dimensions of social objective reality.

The year that has passed after the Fukushima tragedy gives ample food for reflection and understanding of its lessons. The disaster highlighted a long-standing crisis of the entire political system of Japan and raised the question of its fundamental reform. An important lesson was the deflating myth of the nuclear-power facilities safety in a country located in an earthquake-prone zone.

Much has been done over the year to repair the immediate damage of the disaster – waste disposal, decontamination, restoration of industrial potential. However, it would take years and decades to resolve more long-term problems. The only obvious thing is that the country has entered a post-Fukushima period of its development which would be entirely different in all dimensions of social objective reality.

A year that gives food for learning the lessons from the disaster

The “triple calamity” which combined a magnitude 9 earthquake, powerful tsunami and radiation accident at Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant was an unprecedented event in its nature, devastating effect and the scale of ramifications. The disaster claimed nearly 16 thousand human lives, and more than three thousand people are still missing. More than 350 thousand people were evacuated from the suffered area.

The past year vividly revealed the weaknesses of national political management. It was most clearly seen during the first months after the accident when the accuracy and promptness of the response were most demanded. Quite often the politicians’ moves confused the government officials, causing discord in their ranks. For example, this is what happened in July 2011 when Prime Minister Naoto Kan repudiated the statement made a month earlier by his own minister regarding the acceptable safety level at the nuclear power plant.

The Fukushima tragedy exacerbated a long-standing crisis of the national political system, exposing its flaws and raising the issue of its urgent fundamental reform.

Decisions made by the authorities significantly fell short of the actual needs. The Prime Minister was too slow in appointing a special minister for damage repair while the eventually appointed politician was practically immediately deposed because of a clumsy statement. The government was extremely overdue (four and a half months after the accident) to adopt a directive on the matters of restoration, which delineated specific measures, executive officials, timing, financial resources, and defined the areas of recovery works etc. Only in early February 2012, nearly a year after the disaster, the government managed to establish a special government agency on restoration issues which assumed the role of a body coordinating disconnected efforts of separate agencies. It is appropriate to mention the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923 which practically wiped the Japanese capital off the face of the earth, when an identical agency was established only four weeks after the quake.

A parliamentary confrontation between the parties of the ruling bloc and the opposition inappropriate at the time of national crisis also gave birth to a serious problem. An additional budget so badly needed for restoration efforts was endorsed with a big delay. As a result of such sluggishness, disenchantment and distrust became a prevailing sentiment of the public opinion polls on the political authority. In early 2012 the government approval rating did not exceed 30% [1]. From this viewpoint the Fukushima tragedy exacerbated a long-standing crisis of the national political system, exposing its flaws and raising the issue of its urgent fundamental reform.

An important lesson of Fukushima was the deflating myth of a safe nuclear power industry in a country located in a seismically unsafe area. For many decades the Japanese were purposefully indoctrinated that the situation is under control and there is no need to worry. The lesson taught is that the elements are unpredictable, and a man facing the elements with all his technical potential is completely vulnerable. Now Japan has to show the world how the country formerly focused on peaceful nuclear capacity would be able to restructure the energy production sector, how it would resolve the problems of radioactive waste recycling under limited space conditions etc. Those are the issues unparalleled in the world history.

Ramifications removed, problems remain

Good progress has been made in the waste disposal in the alienation zone around the power plant and the decontamination of roads, buildings and structures, recycling of radioactive waste. However, one has to be aware of the scale of the problems. The earthquake and tsunami left behind 22.5 million tons of debris – 1.6 times as much as the earthquake of 1995 in Kansai [2]. In Miyagi prefecture alone the amount of wreckage is close to the amount of household waste over the 19-year period [3]. By March 2012 only about 6% of the wreckage were removed.

The removal of debris is further complicated by their radioactive contamination. The central government appealed to local authorities across the country to accept and recycle waste from the victimized districts with a low level of radioactive contamination (up to 280 becquerel per kilo). However, the overwhelming majority of municipalities refused to do so justifying it by the shortage of appropriate landfills and radiophobia of the population [4]. Only the Tokyo municipality and a few others in two prefectures responded to the appeal.

Today the authorities are determined are focused on gradual decommissioning of active stations in proportion to the expiry of their service life. Expectedly, the loss will be compensated for by greater hydrocarbon imports, relatively environmentally-friendly natural gas and renewable energy generation.

Another problem is that vast amounts of radioactive substances found their way to the sea and agricultural holdings. As a result, marketing of food products of the neighboring farms as well as sea food produced in the region, though radioactively safe, face extreme difficulties. In its turn, it endangers well-being of farmers, fanning up additional social tension in the areas hit by the disaster.

Another urgent issue is the resettlement of people living in an alternative housing. In Miyagi prefecture alone their number is 18 million people [3]. The solution of the issue depends on budget financing which is problematic in Japan – public finances are faced with the enormous deficit. For example, nearly half of the 2012 budget expenses (48%) will be covered through borrowing. In any case, restoration works will take from several years to decades, depending on a specific task.

The international cooperation was invaluable

Japan was highly grateful to accept international assistance especially important immediately after the disaster. Rescue parties from many countries began to arrive right after the tragedy. Together with the American military the Japanese self-defense forces carried out the Tomodati operation, unprecedented in scale, which included clearing of debris, search for people buried therein, delivery of humanitarian aid etc. Japan highly appreciated the mission of the Russian rescue party which arrived in the town of Sendai devastated by the quake. Special emphasis was made on the fact that Russia promptly delivered the items most needed under the circumstances: dosage meters, breathing masks, blankets, potable water. Money donations from abroad also played an important role. Over the year the aggregate sum of donations coming from 126 countries through the government channels made 17.5 billion yen (about 220 million USD), via the Red Cross – 57.5 billion yen (about 720 million USD) [5].

At the memorial ceremony held on the day marking a year of the tragedy the Emperor of Japan expressed deep gratitude to the countries which sent rescue teams and humanitarian aid. Japan has to return the debt of gratitude by making active contribution to the international community - Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said [5]. With its unique experience in dealing with the ramifications of natural disasters Japan intends to host a number of major international conferences including the UN-sponsored World conference on disaster reduction in 2015.

As regards the efforts in dealing with the ramifications of radiation disasters, Japan is highly interested in Russia’s “Chernobyl experience”, as well as the know-how of Ukraine and Belarus. For example, as the standards of radiation safety on potable water and food products are much more rigid in Russia than in Japan, it would be good food for thought.

What is to be done to feel safer?

The disaster proved that all prognostications of the scale of a potential natural disaster made before the tragedy were excessively optimistic. After the disaster the Prime Minister established and chaired the Central Disaster Prevention Council which in autumn 2011 came up with recommendations based on the forecast of more devastating earthquakes and tsunami than expected before. The aftermath scenario of the most powerful earthquake in the capital will be reviewed in favor of a worse option with the loss of 11 thousand human lives and 112 trillion yen of economic damage [6].

New plans of the development of towns and settlements take into account bitter lessons of the devastating tsunami of March 11, 2011. For one, housing construction is going to develop at the uplands under entirely new technologies. The plan provides for the construction of additional super-strong breakwaters, higher seismic stability of infrastructure facilities, schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Besides, special attention is paid to higher awareness of the population, all-round availability of evacuation plans and other means of instruction on the procedures during a disaster. Many regions of the country intend to undertake a civil defense exercise.

At the same time, authorities are working on the scenarios of comprehensive disasters identical to the “triple calamity” of March 11, 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami was amplified by a man-made disaster. They evaluate situations when natural disasters cause extensive fires, large-scale environmental leakage of toxic substances, transportation failures etc. Such planning involves coordinated efforts of rescue services, police, self-defense forces and ordinary citizens. The guideline of the project is the doctrine of “minimizing the damage” which rules that the society must be prepared to natural cataclysms of any magnitude irrespective of their devastating effect.

Japan has entered a “post-Fukushima” period characterized by entirely new parameters in all spheres of social being.

The disaster of March 11 showed the vulnerability of the policy of preferential development of nuclear power industry in a country located in the region of high seismic activity. Long-term plans of development of the electric power industry adopted before the disaster provided for the increase of the nuclear power capacity from the current 30% to 50% by the year 2030. Today the authorities are determined to halt construction of new nuclear power plants and are focused on gradual decommissioning of active stations in proportion to the expiry of their service life. Expectedly, the loss will be compensated for by greater hydrocarbon imports, relatively environmentally-friendly natural gas in the first place, and renewable energy generation. The problem is that today’s technological base practically disallows an increase of the share of clean energy sources to any significant level, while the stake on energy carriers imports would result in Japan’s bitter fight at the world markets with China, India and other developing economies. It will inevitably entail further hike of prices on energy resources.

Japan enters the “post-Fukushima” phase of its development

Though the affected regions represent a relatively small share of the national economic potential (approximately 2.5% of GDP), unquestionably, the scale of devastation told on the entire economy which slowed down its rate of development. The overall damage inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami is estimated at 3.5% of the GDP. Besides, the catastrophe entailed a lower rate of economic development. Another damaging factor for the economy was a sharp appreciation of the yen in 2011, as well as an increase of the LNG imports because of the Fukushima cutoff. For the first time since 1980, in January 2012 Japan had to face a balance deficit of current operations.

As long as the affected regions hosted monopolist enterprises manufacturing certain components of car electronic equipment, a severe blow was delivered on the entire national motor industry. Nevertheless, it did not collapse, and the damage was reduced to certain delays in delivery, which testifies to an outstanding adaptive potential of the Japanese economy. Another important factor is that the government managed to practically completely restore the key infrastructure facilities in the hit areas - gas, water and electricity utilities, motorways and railroads, airports and sea terminals.

Many believed that the disaster will have a strong mobilizing impact on Japan, give a new impetus to the development, allow it to put a end to a protracted period of economic stagnation. It is yet too early to discuss it, but one thing is certain: Japan has entered a “post-Fukushima” period characterized by entirely new parameters in all spheres of social being.

Regarding Russian-Japanese relations in energy sphere, no serious changes were registered therein. By concluding a number of long-term contracts even before the catastrophe Russia strongly consolidated its position in the Japanese energy market as the oil and gas supplier. Systematic enhancement of our ties in energy industry is inter-connected with the further development of Sakhalin projects, and with the construction of a new LNG-producing plant near Vladivostok.

1. Yomiuri Shimbun, 14.02.2012.

2. The Japan Times, 15.03.2012.

3. Yomiuri Shimbun, 12.02.2012.

4. The Japan Times, 15.03.2012.

5. Yomiuri Shimbun, 12.03.2012.

6. Yomiuri Shimbun, 11.03.2012.

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