Revolution #238, July 3, 2011
The Continuing Nuclear Disaster in Japan
In March of this year, a huge earthquake and tsunami struck Japan's eastern coast, killing more than 20,000 people and devastating a whole region. This quake and tsunami triggered a horrendous disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that has led to the release of dangerous radioactive contamination. Three months later, the nuclear crisis at Fukushima is far from over.
Nuclear plants generate power by bombarding enriched radioactive elements, like uranium, in the reactors with sub-atomic particles called neutrons. This causes the radioactive material to split in what's known as a "nuclear fission reaction," releasing tremendous heat (and radiation). The heat is used to produce steam, which turns the turbines that generate electricity. A cooling system using water is supposed to prevent the nuclear fuel from heating up uncontrollably—which would lead to massive release of radioactive contamination.
At Fukushima, this crucial cooling system shut down right after the earthquake and tsunami. And ever since then, water has been pumped into the reactors in a desperate effort to control the nuclear reaction. The water that is pumped in, however, becomes radioactive. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the plant, has dumped some of that toxic water into the ocean. But now more than 100,000 tons of contaminated water fill the tanks, basements, and storage areas at the Fukushima plant. Attempts to filter the radiation out of this water have so far failed. There are reports that TEPCO may soon resume dumping radioactive water into the ocean.
A wide area around the plant is now, in effect, a massive nuclear waste site contaminated with cancer-causing radioactive material like cesium-137. Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, told Democracy Now!, "The reports that I've seen suggest that land contamination, in terms of areas that are technically uninhabitable because of cesium-137 contamination, is roughly 600 square kilometers, or about 17 times the size of Manhattan Island." Many people have already been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The eventual toll on human health and lives from this catastrophe is impossible to measure at this point, but it will very likely cause widespread suffering and death from cancer and other sicknesses over years and decades.
Ocean ecosystems off the coast near Fukushima and perhaps beyond have already been recklessly poisoned with the release of tens of thousands of tons of radioactive water. Greenpeace has documented radiation in seaweed, a big food source in Japan, off the Fukushima coast at levels 50 times higher than official limits. Greenpeace radiation expert Jan Vande Putte said, "Despite what the authorities are claiming, radioactive hazards are not decreasing through dilution or dispersion of materials, but the radioactivity is instead accumulating in marine life.... Our data show that significant amounts of contamination continue to spread over great distances from the Fukushima nuclear plant." (greenpeace.org, May 26, 2011)
Anger and Protest
As new revelations of government cover-ups and failures to protect people's safety continue to come out, there is rising anger among the people in Japan. On June 11, there were anti-nuclear protests all over Japan, the largest to date. Many people were protesting for the first time. It's very important that these protests in Japan be supported around the globe, even as people continue to dig into the causes of this disaster and wrangle over the way forward for humanity in the face of the whole environmental/ecological emergency facing the planet.
Hundreds of farmers from Fukushima prefecture (state) have brought their contaminated vegetables and even milk cows to the streets outside TEPCO headquarters in Tokyo in protest.
Parents from Fukushima prefecture brought radioactive dirt from their children's school yards to government education officials in Tokyo. The government's response was outrageous: they simply raised the official limit for radiation exposure for children twenty-fold! The limit was raised from 1 miliSieverts (mSv) a year to 20 mSv, the same level as for nuclear workers under international standards. Children are much more vulnerable to radiation exposure. Physicians for Social Responsibility condemned the decision by Japanese officials, saying that a 20 mSv annual dose would expose children to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer. In late May, parents from Fukushima surrounded the education ministry and forced them to return to the 1 mSv standard. Later, officials claimed that this standard only applied to the amount kids were exposed to when in school, so radiation outside of school was not going to be counted!
Japan's Nuclear Drive and the U.S. Role
In early June, Japanese officials admitted that the amount of radiation released from Fukushima in just the first week of the disaster was twice as much as TEPCO officials had been claiming. The new estimates apparently do not include the radiation released into the ocean. And more radiation has continued to come out of the damaged reactors at lower levels since these initial releases.
Japanese officials also admitted for the first time that a full "meltdown" of nuclear fuel had occurred in all three of the active reactors at Fukushima, and that some of the material had also "melted through" the inner reactor core vessels and into larger steel containment vessels surrounding them.
In the face of growing opposition, the Japanese government has taken the tack of picturing itself as having been unprepared for the disaster, but is now committed to learning from the events, being "transparent" with the truth, and making the nuclear industry "safe." But the fact is that nuclear plants were built on known earthquake faults, and warnings from experts were ignored. Safety violations were downplayed and licenses approved despite repeated accidents and violations. Standards regarding the ability of plants to withstand quakes and tsunamis were not adopted. Dangers to the people and the environment were ignored to build up the nuclear industry as a key part of fueling growth and expansion of Japan's capitalist economy—to export the technology to other countries and use the nuclear advantage to foster Japan's ability to compete with the rest of the capitalist world.
The U.S. has played an important part in all this by backing Japan, a crucial imperialist ally of the U.S. in Asia, in the development, promotion, and spread of nuclear technology. The reactors at Fukushima used a design developed by the American corporate giant GE.
U.S. officials have criticized certain actions of the Japanese government while claiming that the problems with nuclear power are particular to Japan. Obama has made it clear he intends to go forward with expansion of nuclear power. There are 23 reactors around the U.S. using the same GE design as Fukushima's. The U.S. also has a number of nuclear reactors built in earthquake zones, including a nuclear reactor that has had repeated safety problems but continues to be allowed to operate at Indian Point in New York. Indian Point, located just 30 miles from New York City, has been called the nuclear power plant most vulnerable to earthquakes in the U.S. If a Fukushima-like disaster happened here, millions upon millions of people would be in the path of widespread radioactive contamination.
U.S. government agencies charged with "protecting the public" are operating just like those in Japan. On June 20 the Associated Press released the results of a one-year investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of nuclear safety in the U.S. According to the AP, "Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.... When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed—up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards. Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes—all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP's yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident."
The problem, however, goes much deeper than collusion between governments and corporations. The Fukushima disaster and other environmental horrors, like the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year and the catastrophic environmental emergency facing the whole world, stem from a much more basic source—the system of capitalism-imperialism. Under this system, the fundamental motivation and measure for what is produced and how it is produced is profit. And so nature is viewed as a "free" resource to be seized and plundered, to be poured into profit-based production, no matter what harm is being committed to ecosystems, humanity, and the planet as a whole.
|We encourage readers to get into the Revolution special issue on the environment (revcom.us/environment) and the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) (revcom.us/socialistconstitution).|
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