Revolution #228, April 3, 2011

Japan: Continuing Capitalist Nuclear Crisis and Great Danger

Editors' Note: The following is an update on the nuclear crisis in Japan. We are posting this as a supplementary piece to the talk by Raymond Lotta, "We Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency Under this System, But There Is a Way… and It Is Communist Revolution." We call on readers to help spread Lotta's talk widely, including among activists, websites, etc. in Japan.

The nuclear crisis in Japan continues—with the threat of an even bigger catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on top of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast. As this article is being posted (March 27), the official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is now over 10,000. Over 17,000 are still missing, and hundreds of thousands are homeless. The radiation spewing from the crippled reactors at the Fukushima plant has already done much damage. The situation remains extremely dangerous and is clearly not under control—even as the actual extent of the dangers is being consistently covered up by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO, which owns and operates the plant) and the government.

Earlier this week, Japanese officials claimed progress in restoring power to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. The problems at Fukushima began when the tsunami knocked out the plant's electric power, which shut down the cooling systems for the nuclear reactors. This has caused the radioactive fuel in the reactors to rise to much higher temperatures than under normal operating conditions and emit tremendous amounts of heat. That, in turn, has triggered explosions and fires, damaging the reactors' structures and leading to leakage of radioactive material. A top official with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the restoration of electric power was "perhaps the first optimistic sign that we have that things could be turning around." But bursts of radioactive smoke and steam from several reactors have continued. And further deep problems have emerged. On March 27, TEPCO admitted there was radioactive water in all four troubled nuclear reactors that was 100,000 times above normal levels. And airborne radiation in reactor #2 was measured at 1000 milliSieverts, forcing work crews to withdraw. (A "milliSievert" is 1/1000 of a Sievert, a unit of measure for radiation exposure.)

Widespread contamination from radioactive fallout has already been found in vegetables, water supplies, and milk stretching at least as far away as Tokyo, 130 miles from Fukushima. The fallout is made up of radioactive material from the leakages at the Fukushima plant, which is then spread by winds and then falls to the ground, especially with rainfall. Radioactive material has also flowed out of the plant, which is located right on the coast, and into the sea.

Nuclear experts have noted that this spread of contamination is sharply at odds with the levels of emissions being reported by government and Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) officials. There are dangers of both larger releases of high-level radiation within the plant itself and the immediate area around it, and the increasing spread of lower but still harmful levels of radiation from the plant to wider areas in Japan and beyond.

The harmful effects on the health of millions of people and on ecosystems—in Japan, and potentially over a much wider area—are not just a "Japanese problem." This is a global problem that people worldwide need to confront and act on.

The Problems With the Reactors

On March 25 an official of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced that the core vessel of reactor #3 at the Fukushima plant was damaged. The reactor vessel is made of steel and contains the nuclear fuel rods, and this core is surrounded by a concrete containment vessel. The New York Times reported that a "senior nuclear executive" in contact with the situation said this reactor had a long vertical crack running down the side of the reactor vessel and has been leaking fluids and gases. This is very bad news, because reactor #3 contains plutonium in addition to uranium in its fuel rods. This mix is extremely dangerous, because plutonium can cause cancer even if a very small amount is ingested into the body. Both uranium and plutonium remain radioactive for tens of millions of years, and now it appears an unknown amount has been released to the atmosphere.

On March 24, two workers trying to connect power to a pump in a building next to reactor #3 stepped in radioactive water that poured over their boots. The water was 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found near a reactor, so contaminated that it reportedly caused radiation burns on the workers' feet and ankles immediately. Most media reports have said the two workers were exposed to 170 milliSieverts of radiation. But according to Japan's National Institute of Radiological Science, the workers were likely exposed to 2 to 6 Sieverts. It is known that a single dose of 5 Sieverts (or 5,000 milliSieverts) can be expected to kill half of the people exposed to it within a month. In the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union—the most deadly nuclear accident in the world so far—6 Sieverts was the typical radiation dosage suffered by the clean-up workers who died within a month of exposure.

TEPCO officials also said water with equally high levels of radiation was found in the reactor #1 building, and other water that is likely radioactive was found in reactor buildings 2 and 4. What this means is that there are widespread, potentially lethal levels of radioactive contamination in and possibly around all these reactor buildings, making it very dangerous and difficult for crews at the plant to work there and restore control over the failed cooling system.

Various experts point out that restoring cooling on the reactors involves a great deal more than simply reattaching the power and turning on water pumps. The cooling mechanism for the type of reactors such as those at Fukushima (known as boiling-water reactors, which were designed by General Electric) is a complex system of pumps, piping, levers, and valves at the bottom of the reactor that circulate water through the reactor core. Normally, the cooling system uses freshwater. But since the power was lost and triggered the crisis, large amounts of seawater have been dumped on and pumped into the reactors to cool the nuclear fuel. The seawater has been boiled off by the heat from the fuel rods, leaving behind tens of thousands of pounds of salt in the reactors by some estimates. Experts say that if the salt is building up around the nuclear fuel rods, this would insulate the rods and prevent water from cooling them. The rods then would heat even more, and that could lead to nuclear meltdown—with much larger releases of radiation. Salt can also cause valves crucial to the circulation of cooling water to jam.

In addition, the maze of pipes and the pumps need to be manually vented of air by technicians to prevent holes being blown in the pipes when pumps are turned on. This has to be done in areas now covered, at least in part, by highly radioactive water. Radioactive cobalt and molybdenum have also been found in the water in the reactors, and one nuclear expert has said that this could be connected to corrosion that has built up over years in the reactor pipes.

Rain of Radiation

As these new dangers emerged at the plant, contamination from radioactive fallout was being found in Fukushima prefecture (state) and neighboring prefectures, and at least as far away as Tokyo, 130 miles to the south. The wind has primarily been blowing east toward the sea, so the majority of the radiation from the plant would likely have blown over the ocean. This itself is cause for real concern, despite continual denials from various quarters that any problems will arise from this, because the radiation would supposedly be diluted to harmless levels in the vast expanse of the ocean. Ocean ecosystems all over the planet are under extreme stress and being degraded in many ways, and the radioactive discharge from Fukushima is adding to that situation.

The amount of contamination found in Japan itself (and trace levels of radioactivity have been detected as far away as Iceland) indicates that it's quite likely much more radiation is being released from Fukushima than is being admitted to. Either the authorities are completely failing to adequately monitor the spread of radiation from Fukushima, or else they are deliberately covering it up. A "senior Western nuclear executive" quoted in the March 24 New York Times said that "The contamination levels are well beyond what you'd expect from what is in the public domain," given that the winds have been mainly blowing out toward the sea.

According to little-publicized reports from Austrian meteorological researchers, in the first 3-4 days of the crisis, radioactive iodine released from the Fukushima Daiichi plant amounted to 20 percent of the amount released during the 10 days of the Chernobyl disaster. During the same period, the release of radioactive cesium from the Fukushima disaster amounted to 50 percent of what resulted from Chernobyl. This is a shocking finding, since these figures only take into account the first few days of the current disaster, which is far from over.

Alarming facts are also coming out about contamination of soil. Japanese science ministry officials found radioactive iodine-131 in soil 40 kilometers (about 24 miles) from the plant to be over 400 times the normal level. Levels of cesium-137, which remains radioactive longer than iodine, were 47 times normal. According to Science magazine, the levels of cesium-137 found, at least at this spot, were higher than the highest levels found in some villages near Chernobyl. These are extremely disturbing facts, but instead of warning people, the science ministry said that it "sees no problem at this time" and that it had "no environmental standard for radioactive substances in soil."

So far, only people within 12 miles of the Fukushima nuclear complex have been evacuated. Now, two weeks into the crisis with significant contamination being found much beyond this, the government has simply "encouraged" people up to 19 miles from the plant to evacuate.

Radioactive iodine-131 was detected in Tokyo's water supply on March 23, at a level twice as high as the maximum level deemed safe for infants to drink under existing standards. Warnings were issued that infants should not be given tap water. Iodine-131 is particularly dangerous for newborns, young children, and pregnant women and their fetuses. Radioactive iodine in the bloodstream gets concentrated in the thyroid gland, where it can mutate cells. Although iodine-131 decays (that is, becomes non-radioactive) fairly quickly, it causes higher levels of thyroid cancer in people exposed to it. According to researchers, in certain parts of Belarus, 36.4 percent of children who were under four when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred can expect to develop thyroid cancer.

Contamination in the water supply was also found in three other prefectures, and people streamed to the stores to buy bottled water. The revelation about the water supply contamination was quickly downplayed by the Japanese government. Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that Japan's standards were very strict and "even if people consume the water a few times, there should be no long-term ill effects." But even small incidental doses of iodine-131 have been shown to increase the risk of thyroid cancer later in life for people exposed when they were young children. And even as Edano downplayed the danger, the U.S. military moved a prized nuclear aircraft carrier—which was located off the Japanese coast even further away from Fukushima than Tokyo is—to a more distant location because of fears of contamination.

Radiation levels that exceed safety standards have been found in 12 different types of vegetables in the Fukushima prefecture. And radiation has also contaminated milk in two prefectures. Several countries banned the import of fruits, vegetables, and milk from four Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima. In recent days, the radiation in Tokyo's tap water has dropped below the maximum allowed level for children (while it remained above that level in parts of Ibaraki prefecture, south of Fukushima). But changes in wind direction and rainy conditions could bring the water contamination levels back up.

Groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Citizens Nuclear Information Center in Japan are seeking to alert people to the real dangers. A statement by PSR "expressed alarm over the level of misinformation circulating in press reports about the degree to which radiation exposure can be considered 'safe.' According to the national Academy of Sciences (U.S.), there are no safe doses of radiation. Decades of research show clearly that any dose of radiation increases an individual's risk for the development of cancer." A PSR representative noted that eating food contaminated with radioactive material is especially dangerous: "If an individual ingests or inhales a radioactive particle, it continues to irradiate the body as long as it remains radioactive and stays in the body." Many reports on the crisis are saying that exposures below 100 milliSieverts do not pose a cancer risk. But according to the PSR, what research shows is that exposures of only 10 milliSieverts still lead to a 1 in 1,000 chance of developing cancer. So that means if 1,000,000 people are exposed to 10 milliSieverts, 1,000 of them would be expected to develop cancer from that dose.

Maintaining Capitalist "Order"

Each time some new revelation comes out about radiation being found in food, water and soil, some government official, corporate spokesman, or pro-nuclear power expert is quoted in the mainstream media claiming the threat is not dangerous and will likely have little or no impact on people's health. Instead of being given a scientifically accurate picture of the situation and being mobilized to deal with the dangers, the masses of people are being denied the truth and reduced to passively waiting for "help." Systematic monitoring of fallout is not being done, or the truth about the situation is not being released.

All this is not fundamentally a matter of government incompetence or corporate dishonesty. As Raymond Lotta points out, "The main concern of the Japanese imperialist state is to maintain order and safeguard strategic interests. The main concern of the power companies is to protect investments.

"This is why the Japanese people have been kept uninformed. This is why they have been kept from mobilizing in the way called for… And in a world divided into contending imperialist nation states, there cannot be the kind of global mobilization of people and resources commensurate with the scale of this grave crisis." (From "We Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency Under This System, But There Is a Way…and It Is Communist Revolution," an edited transcript of a talk by Lotta given at the recent Left Forum in New York City. This talk digs into how the nuclear crisis in Japan and the whole global environmental emergency are caused by the capitalist-imperialist system—and how communist revolution to establish a radically new and different state power opens the path for the only viable method to deal in an all-around way with that emergency.)

After their nuclear reactors have caused so much human suffering and environmental damage already, with potential for even greater devastation, the Japanese capitalist-imperialist rulers have declared their intent to continue and step up development of nuclear power. The U.S., France, and other imperialists have announced similar intentions. All this is outrageous and intolerable! The people all over the world must struggle for demands on the system to deal with the effects of this disaster—as we dig into its actual causes and wrangle over the real solution to the urgent environmental emergency that humanity and the planet face.

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