20 July 2007

Nuclear Aftershocks from Japan's Earthquake

The implications of the disruption of the world's largest nuclear power plant by an earthquake in Japan on July 16 spread far beyond the archipelago. The safety questions surrounding the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant will affect the growing public policy debates in Western countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, which increasingly are considering using more nuclear energy technology. The nuclear energy enthusiasm spurred in these countries during the last six months by a variety of reasons, including energy security and greenhouse gas emission concerns, has hit a snag. Although the Japan incident is unlikely to derail these discussions, it could create significant obstacles to nuclear power expansion plans in these countries. Beyond the West, however, the issue is unlikely to affect nuclear expansion in countries such as China, whose special political and economic situations likely will trump any fears about the technology.

The fire, release of radioactive water and 50 other reported malfunctions at the TEPCO plant after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit Japan's Niigata Prefecture are the latest in a string of safety issues within Japan's nuclear industry during the past decade. These issues include the deaths of seven workers at various plants because of alleged lax safety standards and a complete shutdown of all 17 nuclear reactors operated by TEPCO in 2002 after the company admitted to falsifying safety data. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a hard stance against TEPCO during this latest incident, saying the utility's officials did not warn people about possible health and safety issues -- including the leak of 315 gallons of radioactive water -- early enough. Abe went so far as to call on TEPCO officials to "repent" their actions.

As investigations into the incident unfold, questions are being raised not only among the Japanese public over the utility's actions, but also in other key countries on the safety risks associated with nuclear power plants. China, the United States and Europe have been warming to nuclear energy in the past six months for reasons specific to their own circumstances. Each region, therefore, has had different reactions to the Japan incident.

Chinese state media have downplayed the safety issues of the Japanese plant and has instead generally focused on the earthquake. For the Chinese, nuclear technology is a necessity for the country's stability and economic growth. China needs all the help it can get in providing reliable electricity to as much of its country as possible. Its current dependence on outdated coal-fired power plant technologies is not meeting demand requirements and is contributing to health and environmental concerns in the country, which is serving to kick up social unrest -- something the Chinese government cannot afford. The need for reliable power coupled with the need to improve air and water quality essentially ensures that China will increasingly turn toward nuclear power. China has worked several major deals with U.S. companies, including Westinghouse, in recent months, and its June national greenhouse gas plan states that nuclear energy will become an important part of its energy mix. Public perception among the Chinese about nuclear reactors is almost inconsequential (and nearly nonexistent, since the public's pollution concerns about coal power far outweigh any radiological concerns about nuclear power).

For Western countries, however, nuclear energy is one of those issues in which hard facts and figures do not necessarily dictate the direction of policy formation; public perception of the issue is far more influential. In the West, the nuclear industry must overcome the public's visions of dramatic accidents, fears of radioactivity and generally precautionary attitude about the technology. These visions and fears are playing out in Western media outlets' coverage of the Japanese incident.

British media have had mixed reactions, although most major news outlets chose to focus on the idea of safety regulations failing (implying that stronger regulations can be developed) instead of nuclear energy being a problem itself. Despite a strong anti-nuclear movement and years without new plant construction, the United Kingdom is moving toward developing more nuclear power plants to address its greenhouse gas emissions commitment and its dwindling oil and natural gas reserves. On former Prime Minister Tony Blair's way out, his team released an Energy White Paper that says the energy team's "preliminary view" is to support the building of more nuclear plants. In spring 2007, then-Industry Secretary and current Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling urged Parliament to make a decision on nuclear power by the end of the year since many outdated nuclear and coal-fired power plants are slated to close over the next 20 years.

German media have also focused on the regulatory implications of the nuclear industry -- what safety measures need to be in place to reduce the number of nuclear accidents. The nuclear safety issue received more attention among the German public because of the coincidental resignation of the head of Swedish nuclear utility firm Vattenfall on July 18 due to public backlash stemming from two safety incidences at Vattenfall-owned nuclear facilities in Germany at the end of June. German officials have threatened to take away Vattenfall's license to operate in Germany after shutdowns at two plants near Hamburg stemming from electrical defects.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support for nuclear power is constrained by a coalition contract between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, took the Vattenfall opportunity to say that her "pity for the industry is limited." She added that she will not use the Vattenfall incident to "generalize the industry" but that "it must not happen again." Although the German government in 2000 called for a nuclear energy phase-out by 2020 (largely due to public concerns and the Green Party's power at the time within the government), Merkel reportedly is becoming more open to nuclear energy and wants to feature the nuclear energy issue as part of the political debates for the 2009 federal elections. As Germany increasingly concentrates on gaining more domestic control over its energy supply and works to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, the country becomes more likely to use nuclear energy as a larger part of its energy mix.

The U.S. media have been the most outwardly critical of the Japanese incident, with dramatic emphasis on the safety and future of nuclear energy generally. This is particularly important, since the U.S. public perception of nuclear technology arguably has been among the most negative and has prevented the construction of new nuclear power plants since 1977 (the year when construction began on the last U.S. nuclear facility built). The permitting process has begun on several new nuclear reactors in the United States, but none of the permits is close to receiving final approval. Congressional debate on the use of nuclear technology rose in recent months because of political emphasis on reducing dependence on foreign oil and, secondarily, greenhouse gas emissions. It appeared that some type of nuclear energy subsidy would be granted under whatever the U.S. national climate policy becomes.

Globally, investors' reactions to the Japanese nuclear incident confirm the public's general jitteriness. Uranium spot prices had been on a steady rise since 2005 in anticipation of increased demand (and supply concerns) caused by the expected construction of new reactors. During the last few weeks, the spot market tapered off, likely because of a natural correction and summer doldrums. But since July 16, uranium prices have dropped significantly; uranium opened $8 lower on July 17 at $132 a pound in New York. Although in the whole scheme of uranium-trading this is not a huge blow, investors are showing that they, too, are unsure how the Japanese incident will play out.

Even though the Japanese nuclear incident was not catastrophic -- some even say the nuclear plant did exactly what it was supposed to do under the circumstances -- the media attention has shown that much of the public worldwide is still wary of the use of nuclear power. The Japanese incident will not bring the nuclear industry to a halt, but many countries interested in the technology likely will increase their scrutiny of proposed nuclear projects and safety regulations.

China's push ahead on nuclear energy is not likely to be affected by the incident because of Beijing's domestic constraints and policy goals. In the United Kingdom and Germany, it appears that the issue will continue to be debated but likely in a way that focuses on the development of more safety regulations -- something the nuclear industry views as favorable, since it gives the industry license to operate. Nuclear energy expansion plans likely will continue in these countries. In the United States, it looks like the nuclear industry must face a new round of public relations challenges. If the nuclear industry can steer the debate toward the regulatory realm and emphasize the U.S. safety record and advancements in technology, the industry likely will regain its momentum.(GMB)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.