Revolution #227 Online, March 17, 2011

Catastrophe in Japan
The Quake, the Tsunami, and the Nuclear Horror

The following correspondence is from a reader who has been following events in Japan:

The scenes of vast destruction and suffering of the people from the unprecedented (in Japan), earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan are heart-rending. Earthquake preparation is a daily fact of life in Japan, which lies in a very active quake zone, and coastal areas have seawalls and tsunami alert systems. But no one was prepared for what happened on March 11. That Friday afternoon, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0—the seventh largest ever recorded in the world, and the largest ever recorded in Japan—occurred not far off the coast near Sendai, a city of a million people. The earthquake itself caused heavy damage in Japan's Tohoku region to the northeast of the capital, Tokyo. People described the violent shaking as going on for more than five minutes. Sizable aftershocks have continued to rock the area.

But this was not the worst of it, by far. A little more than 30 minutes after the quake, a huge ocean wave—tsunami—caused by the shaking of the ocean floor crashed onto the coastal area. The wave—30 feet or more high—quickly inundated cities, towns, and fishing villages, penetrating miles inland. While tsunami warnings had sounded and many did manage to escape to higher ground, many others did not get the warning or were not able to get to a safe place on time. Shocking and almost surreal videos of the powerful tsunami show whole houses, boats, cars, and huge amounts of unidentifiable debris being swept away.

The village of Minamisanriku used to have 17,000 people—in the days after the disaster, more than half were missing and feared dead. The whole port area of Sendai was flattened. Many other communities along the coast were heavily damaged. This was no slow-moving flow of water. One man in Minamisanriku described how, as he fled in his car at 45 miles per hour, he saw the huge tsunami behind him—and gaining on him.

As this is being written, the officially reported death toll is several thousand—but there is no question that the figure is going to rise much higher, perhaps into the many tens of thousands. There are vast stretches of debris fields many feet deep, and no one knows how many bodies are buried in them. More than 400,000 people have lost their homes and are living in emergency shelters. Supplies of water, food, and electricity have been scarce. And the night-time temperatures have been near or below freezing.

The 9.0 quake and the gigantic tsunami were, by themselves, disasters of horrific proportions. But that still has not been the end of the nightmare—not by far. About 75 miles south of Sendai is a nuclear power plant called Fukushima Daiichi, with six nuclear reactors. The quake and the tsunami knocked out electrical power to the station as well as the emergency generators. With only battery power, which ran out after a few hours, there was no way to keep the water circulating to cool the cores of nuclear material and control the nuclear reaction—which could lead to what is known as a "meltdown." Experts around the world are sounding urgent alarms about what's happening and warning that we are on the brink of a potentially unprecedented nuclear catastrophe. One expert said this could be a "Chernobyl on steroids"—a reference to the 1986 nuclear core meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), which sent dangerous clouds of radiation over a widespread area and caused thousands, perhaps tens of thousands and more, deaths from cancer. Chernobyl had one reactor—the Japanese plant has six, all of which now seem to be in serious trouble.

In a matter of hours and days, "normal" everyday life for millions of people in Japan was shattered. As I write this, the situation could undergo dramatic developments very quickly. And there are many unknowns and unanswered questions, partly because of the unprecedented nature of the events but also because of deliberate attempts by the authorities to play down the situation and cover up the truth. I think there are a couple of points that can be noted about the whole situation.

1. The quake and tsunami that struck Japan's northeast coast was a devastating natural disaster. But the nuclear horror now threatening the Japanese people—and possibly many others in East Asia and beyond—is entirely a product of the capitalist system in effect in Japan. The company that owns and operates the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), is one of the world's largest non-government utility operators and has a notorious history with previous accidents and near-disasters. In 2002, some of its executives were forced to resign when it came out that the company had hidden evidence of cracks in the containment vessels at their nuclear reactors. In 2007, an earthquake damaged a TEPCO nuclear plant on the west coast of Japan, reportedly causing leaks of radioactive material. But the company was allowed by the government to start up the reactors at this plant again in 2009, over protests by anti-nuclear and environmental groups and people in the area.

According to a diplomatic communication that was among the documents recently released by WikiLeaks, an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency warned in 2008 that safety rules for Japanese nuclear power stations were seriously out of date and that a strong earthquake would pose a "serious problem." But the Japanese authorities ignored such warnings and mass opposition.

These outrages are not mainly a matter of government negligence or corporate greed. It may seem like an act of insanity to build extremely dangerous nuclear facilities on a known earthquake zone—and it is totally irrational, from the standpoint of the interests of humanity. But those in power in Japan—the capitalist-imperialist class and its state—are being driven by the necessities of their system. As part of their ceaseless striving to maximize profits—and in the face of other imperialists and rival powers who are doing the same—they pursue and utilize energy sources that serve those class interests. They don't—and they fundamentally can't—look at the long-term interests of the people of the world and act as guardians of the earth's ecosystems. Japan is an island country with no domestic sources of oil, and its rulers have been particularly intent on increasing their use of nuclear power, which now makes up a third of Japan's energy source. (Japan certainly is not the only country to build a significant number of nuclear plants; for example, there are over 100 in the U.S., including two right near major earthquake faults in California, and France gets some 80% of its energy from nuclear power plants.)

The so-called "dawn of the nuclear age" began with the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 200,000 people instantly—but the Japanese rulers have been promoting nuclear power as an "efficient" and "clean" source of energy. And, of course, the Japanese imperialists (like other imperialist powers) are also continuing to use massive amounts of coal and petroleum fuels that produce greenhouse gases and are accelerating global climate change. But if they didn't act in this way, they would be pushed aside and even pushed under by other imperialists and major rivals like China.

2. From the first days of this crisis, the Japanese authorities—hand-in-hand with TEPCO--have consistently tried to downplay the seriousness of the nuclear threat and to keep the truth from the people. For example, on the Democracy Now! program on March 16, Philip White, from the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, said officials are covering up the seriousness of radiation already coming out of the damaged reactors: "They have repeatedly said that below…a dose of 100 millisieverts, there is no risk. Sometimes they qualify it by saying there’s no immediate risk, which is perhaps technically accurate. But they have completely refused to point out that these lower levels of radiation are scientifically recognized—there’s maybe some debate—but basically, the consensus is that there’s—your risk is proportional to your dose. And that goes right down, you know, right down to the lowest doses. So, this notion that you’re somehow or other safe below 100 millisieverts is—it’s not recognized in the scientific community. The difference is that there’s no—you’re not going to get acute radiation sickness; you’re looking more at long-term effects, such as cancer. But they have just refused to give that perspective, which—you know, that’s getting to the point of being outright deceptive, I think."

Some news commentators "explain" that Japanese government officials are trying to avoid panicking the people. But the lies and cover-ups have nothing to do with genuine concern for the people. The Japanese state—the government, the police, and armed forces in particular—does not represent the real interests of the people but is an instrument of rule by the capitalist-imperialist class, and stands in fundamental antagonism against those who they rule over. This fundamental truth is what’s guiding the overall way the Japanese state is responding to this disaster.

The Japanese government is not really mobilizing the initiative, determination, and creativity of the masses of people, scientists, and other experts to deal with this crisis. Instead, in many stricken areas, people have been left to passively wait for help or totally abandoned. A woman standing in the middle of the devastation in one town angrily told Al Jazeera, "There are old ladies coming and going around this dangerous area. The local government has not called for anything or told us what to do next. They're basically ignoring us. And they're basically telling us to clean up on our own. Nobody is coming here."

As the article, “A Global Disaster… A Necessary Response” (posted at says: “Humanity can’t predict and control nature but effects of natural disasters don’t have to be mediated through the existing social relations. People are being denied information about what is happening to them. People are being told to be ‘orderly,’ to obey the authorities. This is the exact worst way to handle something like this—people need to be informed and mobilized to deal with a disaster of this type, and history shows that when the normal social relations are suspended in such disasters the people almost always react by organizing themselves to deal with the situation... and the authorities always react by forcefully suppressing that. This must not happen.”

A quake and tsunami of the magnitude and force that struck March 11 would have been devastating for any society. But the suffering of the people—and the potential for even greater horrors to hit the people and the environment—has been magnified many times over by the nature and workings of the capitalist-imperialist system.

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