Revolution #230, April 24, 2011

Chernobyl in Japan: the Capitalist Nuclear Horror

For a month, radioactive contamination has poured out of the Fukushima nuclear reactors after the huge earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s eastern coast. Radioactive materials have spread over wide swaths where millions of people live. Food crops, tap water, and soil have been contaminated, endangering human health and poisoning ecosystems. Farmers' and fishermen's livelihoods are being ruined even as the government has completely neglected to warn them about what is safe and what is not, and in fact has covered up the dangers by claiming the radiation levels are too low to pose any danger. And bodies from the tsunami and quake are still being found. 28,000 people are dead or missing, and 150,000 are still living in temporary shelters.

The owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) purposely dumped tons of radioactive water into the ocean while even more highly radioactive water gushed from a pit near one reactor. For days, 7 tons of this stuff poured every hour straight into the ocean. After this, radiation levels 7.5 million times the legal limit were measured offshore. Outrageously, throughout all this, a false picture has been presented by all the world's authorities and the media that somehow none of this would pose a danger to ocean ecosystems or people. The truth is that some radioactive materials like cesium-137 can be absorbed by the base of the food web in phytoplankton, zooplankton and kelp, which can then build up in fish, marine mammals, and humans. The ocean has been portrayed as a limitless dumping ground, which would easily dilute the radiation to minute levels. This is the same outlook allowing the tremendous destruction that has already occurred in the world's oceans, with huge implications for ocean ecosystems and even potentially life on earth as a whole.

After weeks of downplaying the extent and dangers of the nuclear crisis, the Japanese government admitted on April 11 that the disaster was on the same level as Chernobyl. Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) raised the rating of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale to a level 7 disaster, one involving "widespread health and environmental effects" and the "external release of a significant fraction of the reactor core inventory." NISA estimates the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors have already released 10% of the radioactive materials released at Chernobyl. Given that the government has consistently underestimated the contamination, the actual amount may be higher. An official for TEPCO said, "our concern is that it could eventually exceed Chernobyl."

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident in history. It poisoned wide swaths of land and the estimates of the number of people who will end up dying from cancer as a result of Chernobyl range from thousands to hundreds of thousands. But unlike Chernobyl which involved one reactor, at Fukushima there are 3 active reactors deeply damaged and suffering some level of nuclear meltdown, and huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel rods that they can't restore cooling systems for as well. Andre-Claude Lacoste, the head of Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) of France, said the clean-up would be a problem "for decades and decades to come."

Government spokespeople claim the danger at the Fukushima plant has greatly lessened, but the truth is the situation continues to be dangerous and not under control. There is evidence that the radioactive core of reactor #2 probably has leaked out of or melted through its containment vessel meaning there could be larger radioactive releases and danger of explosion. Nitrogen gas is being pumped into at least one other reactor, to try to counter the build-up of hydrogen which caused previous explosions. Water continues to be poured into reactors and spent fuel pools to try to cool nuclear fuel. This water then becomes radioactive and is spread all over the area, making it difficult or impossible to repair or replace equipment and restore the cooling systems. Earthquake aftershocks continue to hit the area, with potential to cause even more dangerous radioactive releases from the plant.

Michael Friedlander, a former official at nuclear plants in the U.S. said the problems are far "beyond the design capacity" of the plant and that "no nuclear power plant has ever considered the inability to get on long-term core cooling for more than a week" and it is now one month into the crisis. TEPCO has admitted there is "no end in sight" to the disaster.

The Japanese government had evacuated people within 12 miles of the Fukushima plant and told those within 18 miles to stay indoors. For weeks, it has been apparent the contamination is much more dangerous and has spread farther than the government has admitted. Greenpeace sent teams to monitor radiation levels in areas outside the 12 mile zone. In the town of Iitate, 24 miles from Fukushima, they found levels that in a few days exposure would add up to the annual allowable doses of radiation. Greenpeace monitor Thomas Breuer said in Fukushima, a city of 340,000 inhabitants 40 miles from the nuclear plant, people are going about their everyday lives while exposed to harmful radiation levels all over the city. On April 11, the government agreed to evacuate some communities outside of the 18 mile exclusion zone. Finally, on April 16, Japanese authorities agreed to expand the evacuation zone from 12 to 18 miles.

A Shameful Response

The response of the whole world capitalist system to this immense catastrophe has been one of paralysis, lies, cover-ups, denial and the reckless endangering of people's lives. Not one country has exposed in real terms the tremendous dangers bound up with the crippling of these nuclear reactors, or the tremendous dangers for human health and ecosystems let loose by this catastrophe, or moved to meaningfully help get people out of harm's way. Instead, scientists, activists and other ordinary people have been fighting to sound the alarm and go up against this. But as it says in the special issue of Revolution "Emergency," they have run "smack up against the profit-above-all relations that dominate economic and social life on the planet and that constrain humanity from acting in the way it must to preserve the planet."

On April 10 Japanese cabinet secretary Yukio Edano defended the Japanese government's response to the crisis. He said the government had done all it could, and that the scale of the earthquake and tsunami was just beyond anyone's imagination. This is completely untrue.

Like all other capitalist countries, the U.S., the UK, France and all the rest, Japan's economy can only operate with tremendous influxes of energy. Japan, without fossil fuels and forced to import them, made a strategic decision to develop its nuclear industry. This industry now supplies 30% of Japan's energy and the plan is to expand this to 60% by 2100. All of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors are in earthquake zones and in fact there are a number in zones rated more seismically active than those just hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima.

Scientists' Warnings Ignored

The Japanese government, through more than one administration, ignored warnings from some of its own experts that its nuclear plants were vulnerable to earthquakes. Ishibashi Katsuhiko, a prominent member of an expert government panel overseeing seismic design guidelines resigned in protest after his warnings were ignored. After several earthquakes in 2005-2007 near three nuclear power plants (including one owned by TEPCO), Ishibashi pointed out the earthquakes were all stronger than what the plants were built to withstand. He said Japan's seismic guidelines were defective and "the system to enforce them is in shambles."

Ishibashi said Japan had entered a period of more intense seismic activity in the 1990's and predicted in 2007 that if radical steps weren't taken to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear plants to earthquakes, "Japan could experience a true nuclear catastrophe in the near future."

So what happened? Did the authorities alert the public to the danger and invite societal debate over the human and environmental risks and how to radically reconfigure society to reduce dependence on both fossil fuels and this clearly deadly, "accident-waiting to happen" nuclear energy strategy? No!! According to Ishibashi, "the government, along with the power industry and the academic community, all developed the habit of underestimating the potential risks posed by major quakes."

This is because there is and could be no "mechanism" under capitalism to identify and act on the immense dangers presented, to make people aware of the human and environmental costs. Doing this would unravel the operation of the capitalist system. It would totally undermine its most basic drive and commandment: profit.

Imagine the capitalists of ANY country mobilizing society to consume less in order to reduce the need for nuclear or oil based power. Or to mobilize a national consensus for people to stop driving, share public transportation or quit producing iToys or whatever the next technological gadget will be so that humanity moves away from the completely environmentally destructive path capitalism-imperialism is taking us down. Capitalism can't pose to society the risks of fossil fuel or nuclear profit-driven consumption to world ecosystems, and challenge people to transform this because it would completely undermine its functioning.

But things don't have to be this way. As the special "Emergency" issue puts it, "Under capitalism, social production and economic calculation are governed by profit. Under socialism, this will no longer be the case. A socialist society and economy will be consciously working to promote and advance the world revolution towards a communist world. Economic decision-making and accounting will be governed by planned and rational production—and by the deployment of society's skills, resources, and capabilities—to serve what is useful and important for the betterment of world humanity."

A Need for Outrage and Resistance

People cannot accept this situation, anywhere. This is a global problem and a global danger. There is increasing anger building in Japan over the continuing lies and cover-ups of the authorities and their inability to control the nuclear disaster. Initial anti-nuclear protests of dozens or a few hundred have grown. On April 10, 10,000 people protested in Tokyo including large numbers of youth who built the protest via Twitter. There are increasing demands from anti-nuclear organizations in Japan, and in other countries, that people be told the truth about the situation, that their safety be protected, that people be evacuated from areas contaminated with radiation, and that nuclear plants be shut down. 200,000  protested in Germany against nuclear power. One call is for protests to "show our consternation and solidarity with the people of Japan…We demand that all atomic installations be switched off." This is very welcome.

Everyone should put their heads together, struggle to develop, and unite to fight for demands on the system right now to deal with the effects of this disaster. The governments must mobilize all resources to contain the disaster, and there must be international medical rescue and aid. The outrageous cover-up and lying must stop and there must be full disclosure of what is going on, including independent scientific panels to investigate and verify the actual nature of this crisis. The full scale of the human and natural disaster must be made clear. There must be an immediate moratorium on building nuclear power plants everywhere and a deactivation of all plants everywhere built in earthquake zones, including those in the United States at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California. Other just demands should be formulated and fought for.


Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond