Revolution Online, March 21, 2011

Nuclear Nightmare in Japan

As this article is posted, the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan continues and there is still a real threat this could escalate into a larger catastrophe. Large amounts of radioactivity have already been released into the air through multiple explosions, fires, and venting of radioactive steam. These radioactive clouds have spread in different directions, depending much on wind direction. Reports say two of the nuclear reactors have been turned into a "mangled mix of steel and concrete." Japanese officials announced they were making progress in cooling down some of the reactors that had been posing the least threat of causing further danger, but the crisis is far from over.

Dangerous levels of radiation have been detected in the plant itself, and lower levels have been measured in other areas, including 130 miles away in Tokyo, a city of almost 13 million people.

An AP article on March 20 said there were already increasing signs of radiation contaminating crops, plants, and drinking water. It said, "The government halted shipments of spinach from one area and raw milk from another near the nuclear plant after tests found iodine exceeded safety limits. But the contamination spread to spinach in three other prefectures and to more vegetables—canola and chrysanthemum greens. Tokyo's tap water, where iodine turned up Friday [March 18], now has cesium. Rain and dust are also tainted."

This disaster has already caused significant damage and has potential to cause more in a number of ways and on varying levels. And there remains real danger that the situation could spin even more out of control, with much more massive and widespread releases of radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant, but also spreading far beyond.

Japan is the only country to have suffered the immediate impact of nuclear bombings—the two nuclear bombs that decimated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War 2. And then, for generations, hundreds of thousands of Japanese suffered from the immensely horrible impacts of radioactive contamination from these bombs. Now, on top of the massive death and suffering wrought by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, millions of people potentially lie in the path of widespread radioactive fallout. And we should never forget that these—first and only—nuclear bombings were carried out by the U.S.

The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters. But the decisions to build nuclear power plants in quake zones, the failure to alert people to the potential radioactive dangers and instead to cover-up the extent of danger—these are the result of the existing social relations of a capitalist-imperialist system. This crisis has enormous implications for human life in Japan and nearby countries especially, and for the ecosystems in this region and beyond, on land and sea.

Nuclear Power and the Crisis

TEPCO and the Capitalist Nuclear Disaster

With the development of a nuclear crisis in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a pattern is being revealed of cover-up of accidents, safety violations, and damage to the ecosystem in Japan's nuclear industry—a pattern not unlike what came to light after last year's disaster in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico after the explosion at the BP oil well.

The Fukushima plant is owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the largest power company in Japan and the fourth largest in the world. Thirty percent of energy needs in Japan are generated by nuclear power. Japan doesn't have a domestic source of oil, which is still the main energy source in that country. And the Japanese government made a decision to increasingly rely on nuclear power in a bid to best serve the needs and functioning of the capitalist economy. This decision also had to do with putting Japan in the best position to strengthen its economic position in relation to other capitalist powers by establishing more energy independence from imported oil. And this has involved Japan's government and nuclear interests working closely together. The pattern of nuclear power development in Japan has been driven by the needs of capitalist competition and profit-making, the compulsion to cheapen costs including by cutting back on safety and even falsifying safety records that would slow production or make it more expensive, and the complete inability to take account of the long-term needs and safety of both the people of Japan and of the natural environment.

TEPCO (like BP in relation to its fossil fuel operations) has a long and ugly history of repeated accidents and safety violations in its nuclear plants. In 2002, the head of TEPCO and other company officials had to resign after revelations that they had falsified safety records and covered up 200 accidents in TEPCO facilities over 25 years. In 2003 TEPCO had to temporarily shut down all 17 of its nuclear plants due to a scandal over the falsification of safety inspection reports. TEPCO officials apologized and swore they had learned their lesson and would change. But in 2006 it came out that TEPCO had falsified other coolant-water data in the 1980s. And accidents continued to happen, including ones in which workers were killed by radioactive steam and or sprayed by radioactive water. Despite this record, the Japanese government has been continuing to allow TEPCO to operate—and even renewed authorization for the Fukushima Daiichi plant just one month before the current disaster.

In 2007 a 6.8-scale earthquake set off a fire at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki reactor on Japan's west coast. Japanese seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko warned then that Japan's nuclear power plants had a "fundamental vulnerability" to major earthquakes. U.S. embassy cables recently released by Wikileaks revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had warned Japan in 2008 that strong earthquakes would be "a serious problem" for its nuclear plants. In fact, the Fukushima Daiichi plant was only built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, 100 times weaker than the 9.0 quake that just struck. It wasn't only this plant, but many others in Japan that have been built and continuously approved by the government to operate right in the midst of earthquake fault zones—despite a great deal of opposition from many people and political forces in Japan. (And this is happening not just in Japan, but in the U.S. and other countries as well.) These are not just zones where earthquakes might happen. They are zones where powerful quakes repeatedly have happened and will happen in the future. Tokyo, the huge metropolis of many millions 130 miles southwest of the Fukushima plant, has been hit by six extremely powerful earthquakes since 1700, causing tremendous damage.

Nuclear plants are built on earthquake fault zones even when it is known this is a danger. Nuclear power is continually developed as an "economically competitive" strategy, despite the inherent danger it involves, including the danger of meltdown and radioactive contamination in addition to the production of toxic waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years and will outlast any type of structure that can contain it. Repeated approval and go-ahead is given for companies that have clearly demonstrated pattern of disregard for safety and have produced accident after accident. All this is not just a matter of greed or cozy corporate-government relations. What is involved are the profit-above-all workings of the capitalist system.

The reactor design used at Fukushima has been known to have safety problems since 1972. The Fukushima reactors are Mark 1 reactors, built by General Electric beginning in the 1960s. According to the New York Times, GE marketed the reactors as "cheaper and easier to build—in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure." These are the structures that have been ruptured by explosion in the current disaster. Questions about the safety of these reactors were raised to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the U.S. in 1972. An official who later became chairman of the NRC said that while a ban on the Mark 1 reactors was "attractive," the technology was so widely used that banning it "could well be the end of nuclear power." So these reactors continue to be used, including in 23 nuclear reactors in the U.S. The truth is that the U.S. is implicated by what has been revealed by the nuclear disaster in Japan—with the design of the Fukushima reactors developed by GE, the use of these same reactors in the U.S., and the insane positioning of nuclear power plants in earthquake zones just as in Japan.

This nuclear disaster was triggered when the earthquake and resulting tsunami off of Japan's eastern coast knocked out electricity and back-up power to the Fukushima plant. Power is generated in the reactors in nuclear plants by bombarding enriched radioactive elements, like uranium, with neutrons, causing their atoms to become unstable and split. Tremendous heat (and radiation) is given off in this nuclear fission reaction. This heat is used to heat water and produce steam. The steam is then used to turn turbines and generate electricity that can be transmitted via power lines. The radioactive elements used in the reactors are bound together in nuclear fuel rods, and they continue to generate large quantities of heat even when control rods are inserted into the nuclear cores to shut down the nuclear reactions.

The reactors at Fukushima shut down automatically after the earthquake struck. But because all electric power to the plant had been lost, the water cooling systems that are needed to prevent the uncontrolled heating of the nuclear fuel were also shut off. The superheated nuclear fuel rods boiled off the water, and this apparently generated hydrogen gas, which caused or contributed to fires, explosions, and releases of radioactive steam and smoke into the atmosphere. Explosions appear to have ruptured the nuclear cores of two of the active reactors at the Fukushima plant, reactors #2 and #3. Fuel rods in the first three reactors appear to have partly melted down, and there is danger of larger meltdowns that could cause further explosions and a more massive release of nuclear contamination. (A meltdown occurs when the radioactive fuel heats to the point that it literally melts, which can potentially burn through the cores containing the fuel.)

There are six reactors in total at Fukushima Daiichi. All six apparently contain spent nuclear fuel rods. A tremendous amount of radioactive material at Fukushima is in the form of these spent rods, which are generally stored in pools of water at the top of the reactor buildings, outside of the nuclear core. So this means that these rods are more exposed to the atmosphere. Even when the rods are "spent," they generate enormous amounts of heat and must be cooled for years.

On March 16, an official with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said water in the pool responsible for cooling the spent fuel rods in reactor #4 had boiled off, leaving the rods dry. He said this was causing very high radiation levels and danger of more fires and meltdown—and that due to the potentially lethal doses of radiation caused by this, it would be very difficult for emergency workers to even get near the reactors to continue to cool them. (A small crew of about 50 workers, out of the normal workforce of 800, had been left behind at the plant to deal with the disaster.)

It also appears there is a dangerous situation with the spent fuel outside the reactive core in reactor #3—Japanese military helicopters and crews manning water cannons repeatedly tried to douse this fuel in the reactor. The fuel in this reactor contains plutonium, a particularly dangerous radioisotope that is very long-lived and can cause cancer even if microscopic amounts are ingested. Desperate efforts are underway to try to get water into the pools surrounding the fuel rods and to restore power to the cooling pumps, and authorities have been claiming some progress—but the crisis isn't over.

A sign of the radioactive danger already present was the quick evacuation of hundreds of workers from the plant, leaving a smaller crew to try to cope with the disaster. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from a 12-mile radius around the plant, and 140,000 more in a larger 18-mile radius have been warned to stay indoors and seal up their doors and windows. Other countries and many nuclear experts are saying this zone should be greatly expanded. It's been reported that people who are able to have been leaving Tokyo.

Radiation, Fukushima, and the Specter of Chernobyl

There are different kinds of radiation—some are low energy and not damaging to life, but there are also high-energy forms that are known as ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation at very low levels is present all around us in the form of cosmic rays and radioactive elements in the earth, and from other sources. For the most part, these very low levels of "background radiation" don't produce much if any damage to living cells. 

But ionizing radiation that poses a much greater threat than at low background levels is produced in enormous amounts by nuclear reactions from detonation of nuclear explosions and in the fission reactions in nuclear power plants. Nuclear reactors also produce huge amounts of highly radioactive nuclear waste, like uranium and plutonium, that can continue to emit dangerous radiation for thousands of years. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even small amounts of radiation over a long period of time can increase the risk of cancer. Ionizing radiation can cause mutations in the DNA of living cells, which can be passed on to children. And high levels of radiation over a short period can kill living cells and cause radiation burns, sickness, and even death at acute levels.

Ira Helfand, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said on "Democracy Now" on March 18 that there are two dangers present in the current nuclear crisis in Japan. One is the presence of very high-level radiation, which is concentrated right now in the immediate area of the plant but which could become a much bigger problem in the surrounding areas with a much larger release of radioactivity from meltdown or further explosions. But the other is radiation at lower but still potentially damaging doses spreading out much farther. This leads to "the possibility of cancer and other chronic illnesses being caused down the road from this episode. The radioactive material coming out of the plant is made up of 200 different radioactive isotopes, and particles of these radioactive materials can travel great distances with the wind if they are dispersed into the air." Right now the levels people are being exposed to in places like Tokyo are still quite low, and if it remains this way, the health risk is also low. But Helfand points out that "the situation there is still completely out of control," and that with a larger release, the current situation "could change dramatically, and we could end up with a situation, as occurred at Chernobyl."

Many nuclear experts are saying that the Fukushima Daiichi crisis is just one level below what happened in 1986 at Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union. They have rated Fukushima as a level 6 disaster—Chernobyl was a 7. Chernobyl killed thousands, and the estimates of the total number of people who will eventually die of cancer caused by radiation spread from Chernobyl ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Possible increases in thyroid cancer linked to the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl reach as far as England. And the area surrounding Chernobyl where the radioactive clouds passed, known as the Red Forest, remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world. There are real differences between Fukushima and Chernobyl, and certain problems at Chernobyl are unlikely to occur here. On the other hand, there other ways in which the situation is more dangerous than Chernobyl. For instance, there are six reactors at Fukushima, and four have been in deep trouble. Only one exploded at Chernobyl. The danger involved in this prompted former nuclear engineer Arne Gunderson to say the Fukushima disaster could escalate to be like "Chernobyl on steroids."

The System's Workings—and a Different Way

Given the seriousness of this situation, let's look at how the ruling powers and their system have handled this. Japanese government and officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have, from the beginning, downplayed the seriousness of this crisis and tried to make it sound like it was no big deal. Faced with a situation completely out of control and verging on a full nuclear catastrophe, they first said the danger level was only level 4—equivalent to a relatively controllable problem. They only inched up their estimation to level 5 days after the nuclear cores were ruptured and fires and explosions had underscored the seriousness of the actual situation in the eyes of the world. The officials have not released a clear picture of the extent of releases of radiation. It's not clear to what extent the radiation release is even being closely monitored—but if it is, it isn't being systematically presented to the people and to the world. They have kept from people the potential risks of exposure and not given out information about the actual truth of the situation and efforts at the nuclear plants. In short, they have completely failed to warn and prepare the people, and then failed to mobilize the people to deal with the possible impacts of a tremendous disaster. 

This crisis is also being covered up and used to gain advantage by other powers—notably the U.S. The U.S. has found it necessary and opportune to raise certain criticisms of the way the Japanese are failing to deal with this crisis. But Obama and other top officials have made it clear that while they may "review" safety of nuclear plants in the U.S., nuclear energy remains a vital part of the U.S. "energy strategy." The truth is that the U.S. is directly tied to this disaster in Japan—the design of the Fukushima reactors was developed by General Electric. And these same reactors are being used in 23 reactors in the U.S., with the same insane positioning of many nuclear power plants in earthquake zones, just as in Japan. And instead of warnings and mobilizations for people to come to the aid of the people in Japan, there have been repeated announcements that "Americans have nothing to fear" from the radiation, fostering ugly, selfish American chauvinism—that "it's only us who matter."

None of these imperialist powers have said anything about the potential dangers to the ecosystems arising from the potential radioactive fallout. How will the oceans and life in the oceans, so rich and varied and at the same time so crucial to human life, be impacted by continuing or heightened radioactive fallout? What will be the full impact on other ecosystems—on wildlife, plants and animals, on food crops—from what has already occurred, or if there is greater release of radiation?

In contrast to how the Japanese and the U.S. imperialists are dealing with this disaster, how would socialist society moving toward a communist world deal with such things?

To state it briefly: the new socialist state would move as quickly as possible after the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist-imperialist state and the seizure of power to transform the energy base of society, as part of the transformation of the whole economy, from one of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power (both of which are damaging and dangerous to the environment and human life) to sustainable and renewable forms of energy. The new socialist society would move to immediately assess and shut down any still functioning nuclear power plants on earthquake faults.

In any type of disaster, the socialist state would fully mobilize scientists to fully investigate, with the help of others, including those from other countries who wanted to contribute. And the findings of these investigations would be released so people could be as fully informed as possible, and be able to act on that scientific understanding. The socialist state would do everything possible to mobilize the masses—and to rely on their conscious activism to prepare for and do the most possible to protect the people broadly from the effects of the disaster, for example, if people had to be evacuated to safety.

The socialist state would warn about and seek to limit damage to the ecosystems arising from any similar crisis. In a more overall sense, the revolutionary state would NOT be guided by and make decisions based on the anarchic expand-or-die, profit-above-all else, grab-and-plunder workings of this capitalist system. Instead, it would be guided by the principles of protecting and preserving the lives and fundamental interests of the broad masses of the people, and also the health and functioning of natural ecosystems.

In other words, there would and can be, a world of difference.

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