Fukushima: one year after

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In March 11th 2011 a gigantic tsunami flooded the Japanese east coast. Waves as high as 12-15 meters caused incredible damage. More than 20.000 were killed by the tsunami; thousands are still reported to be missing today; an uncountable number of people lost their home. On the whole planet a big part of the population has settled at the coasts or near coasts; most people live on a narrow space jammed together, more and more threatened by the irreversible rise of sea water levels. The flood waves of the tsunami showed all the dangers that flow from such dense settlement along the coasts.

But contrary to all expectations of the government, a disastrous accident occurred in the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The earthquake and the tsunami brought to the fore the potential dangers arising from both settlement along the coasts in times of climate change and the way the ruling classes deal with nuclear power. For reasons of space, we want to focus in this article on the consequences of the nuclear melt-down.

Chernobyl, Fukushima: helplessness and unscrupulousness of the ruling class everywhere

After the disastrous accident in Fukushima the evacuation of the population began too late and it did not cover the necessary no-go zone. Even though it may be objected that the rescue measures and the evacuation were delayed and made more difficult due to the consequences of the tsunami, the government wanted to avoid a large scale evacuation, because it did not want the population to become aware of the scope of the danger and wanted to downplay the whole situation. All of a sudden it became obvious that the responsible people in Japan (both the company which runs the nuclear plant, Tepco, and the government) had never expected such a scenario and that the safety measures in case of an earthquake and a tsunami of such a magnitude were totally insufficient. The planned emergency measures and the means of emergency intervention were quite inadequate and made hi-tech Japan look like a poorly equipped, helpless giant.

A few days after the disaster, when the possible need for an evacuation of the metropolitan area of Tokyo with its 35 million inhabitants was discussed in the government, this idea was immediately turned down because they simply did not have the means to implement it, and moreover it would have shown the state to be in danger of collapse.

In and around the nuclear plant the recorded radiation reached fatal heights. Shorty after the disaster Prime Minister Kan “demanded the formation of a suicide team of workers who would have to attempt the task of easing the pressure in the plant”. The workers who intervened on the site were totally ill equipped. “For some time there was a lack of dosimeters, and a lack of appropriate and admitted safety boots. One worker reported that the workers had to bind plastic bags with cellotape around their shoes instead. Very often it was impossible for the workers to communicate with each other or with the control centres. Many of the workers had to sleep on the premises of the site, they could only cover themselves with lead blankets. The critical values for male power plant workers in emergency situations was increased on March 15th from 100 to 250 mSv per year”. In several cases workers could only undergo a health check weeks or months later.  

25 years ago, at the time of Chernobyl, the collapsing Russian Stalinist regime, due to a lack of other resources, found nothing else to do but send a gigantic army of forced recruits to fight the disaster on the spot. According to the WHO some 600,000 to 800,000 liquidators were sent, of whom hundreds of thousands died or became ill because of the impact of radiation or cancer. The government never published any official reliable figures.

Now, 25 years later, hi-tech Japan tried desperately to extinguish the fire and cool the site amongst others with fire hoses and by spraying water from helicopters. In contradiction to all previous planning Tepco was forced to use large masses of sea water for cooling the plant and to dump the polluted water into the Pacific Ocean. And while the Russian Stalinist regime 25 years ago forcibly recruited hundreds of thousands of liquidators, economic misery forced thousands of workers in Japan to risk their lives. Tepco recruited in particular among homeless and unemployed workers in the poorest area of Osaka, Kamagasaki. In many cases they were not told where they had to work, and they were often not informed about the risks.

But not only were the lives of the liquidators put at risk; the civilian population was also put at risk. In particular children in the radiated area were exposed to high doses. Since the emissions superseded any previously recorded value, the government decided to consider the exposure of children in the Fukushima area to a radiation level of 20 millisievert as “not dangerous”.

During the first days the rulers in Stalinist Russia tried to stay altogether silent about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; the government of democratic Japan was equally determined to hide the full scope of the catastrophe. The people in charge in Japan showed no less cynicism and contempt for life than the Stalinist regime in power at the time of Chernobyl.

It is impossible today to assess the long-term consequences of the disaster in a realistic manner. The melt-down means that the melted fuel rods have formed a gigantic radioactive clot, which has penetrated through the pressure container. The cooling water has become extremely contaminated. It needs permanent cooling, and new gigantic masses of contaminated water accumulate all the time. Not only the water but also the “unprotected” reactors emit caesium, strontium, and plutonium isotopes. These are called ‘hot particles’, which can be found all over Japan, including Tokyo. So far there are no technical means available to dispose of the nuclear waste piled up in Fukushima. The cooling process itself takes years. In Chernobyl it was necessary to construct a sarcophagus which will have to be torn down at the latest in one hundred years time to be replaced by another one. There is not yet any solution in sight for Fukushima. However, in the meantime contaminated water accumulates and the authorities in charge do not know where to dispose of it. A large part of the cooling water is directly poured into the ocean, where the currents spread it across the Pacific, and its consequences for the food chain and for human beings cannot yet be measured. The Japanese northeast coast which counts as one of the richest fisheries will be affected, even the Bering Strait with its salmon resources may be hit[1].

Because the population density in this region of Japan is 15 times higher than in Ukraine the consequences for the population cannot yet be assessed.

The meltdown thus reveals that the consequences of such a nuclear disaster are totally out of control. The authorities in charge had the choice between plague and cholera. Either let the melt-down happen without any means of intervention or attempt to cool the site with sea water, thus accepting a further spread of radioactivity through the dissemination of the extinguishing devices. The helpless government opted for the contamination of sea water through highly radioactive fire fighting water.

Decontamination: instead of solving the problems, everything becomes worse  

The attempts to dispose of the contaminated soil in the surrounding area displayed a terrible lack of responsibility and lack of scruple. Up until August 2011 in the town of Fukushima some 334 school yards and nurseries were cleaned. But the authorities do not really know where to dispose of the contaminated soil. For example in Koriyama in the Fukushima prefecture, it was just buried in the soil on the school yards themselves. 17 out of 48 prefectures of Japan, amongst them Tokyo, reported that there were contaminated slicks, but the prefectures do not where and how to get rid of them. Even as close as 20 km to Tokyo radiated soil was recorded. Thousands of buildings still need to be scrubbed of radioactive particles.  Even forested mountains will probably need to be decontaminated, which might necessitate clear-cutting and literally scraping them clean. Japanese media have reported that the government is planning an intermediary deposit for millions of tons of radioactively contaminated waste. Since there is no solution some of the radioactively contaminated garbage has been burnt[2]. This is a way of spreading radioactivity even further via the smoke. This helplessness vis a vis the piles of nuclear waste casts a light on the impossibility of decontaminating the radioactive waste. 

Nuclear decontamination – the disastrous legacy, or shitting on the future…

The specificity of the production of electricity through nuclear energy is that the radiation does not stop once the nuclear power plants at the end of their operation time are switched off. The process of nuclear fission is not terminated once the nuclear power plant has been switched off. 

What is to be done with the nuclear waste, because any material which has come into contact with radioactive material is contaminated?

According to the World Nuclear Association, every year some 12,000 tons of highly radioactive waste accumulates. Until the end of 2010 some 300,000 tons of highly radioactive waste had been piled up in the world as a whole, out of which some 70.000 tons can be found in the USA. In 2008 in Russia some 700,000 tons of radioactive waste were stored, out of which 140,000 tons came from European nuclear sites. At the Hanford Site in the USA some 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive material need to be disposed of. In France more than one million cubic meters of contaminated soil is stored (‘Nucléaire, c’est où la sortie’, Le Canard Enchainé, p74), The geological storage which has been practiced or planned in several countries, for example in old mines, is nothing but a temporary makeshift, the dangers of which the defenders of nuclear energy stay more or less silent about. For example in Germany 125,000 barrels of nuclear waste are deposited in an old mine in Asse; these barrels are eroding due to the influence of salt; contaminated lye is already escaping from the barrels. In the German case intermediate storage experts Gorleben found out about the danger of landslides. Similar risks have been diagnosed in most of the dumpsites. This means that while the “normal running” of a nuclear plant is full of dangers, the disposal of nuclear waste is a totally unsolved question. The people in charge have been placing all the nuclear waste into dumpsites, leaving behind a pile of nuclear waste which an endless number of generations will have to cope with.

And the “normal” running of a nuclear plant is not as “clean” as always claimed by the defenders of nuclear industry. In reality enormous masses of water are necessary for the cooling of the fuel rods. Nuclear plants have to be constructed at rivers or shores[3]. Every 14 months in each reactor one quarter of the fuel rods need to be renewed. However, since they are extremely hot, after their replacement they have to be placed into the spent fuel pit, where they need to be cooled for a period of 2-3 years. The cooling water, which is pumped into rivers, leads to a thermal pollution. Algae develop, fish perish. Moreover, chemicals are emitted into rivers (e.g. hydrochloric acid, sodium, boric acid, detergents) In addition water is also polluted with radioactivity, even though only in small doses. 

Almost one year after the disaster – what conclusions have the people in charge drawn?

Are the holders of power, the people in charge, interested in clarifying the root of the problem? Obviously not! As a matter of fact the entire construction plan of the power plant in Fukushima was not adapted to the danger of earthquakes and tsunamis. By now, it has become known that the operating company Tepco covered up many nuclear incidents; important safety deficiencies were camouflaged; widely criticised faults in the safety system were not eliminated, partly because the plant was to be closed after 40 years of operating time. The Japanese state, which usually intervenes heavily in the industry and is known for its intervention through the MITI in the economy, in order to strengthen the competitiveness of Japanese capital, almost issued a blank cheque to the nuclear industry. Even when the manipulation of inquiry reports or the trivialisation of nuclear incidents came to the fore, the state did not intervene more strictly. At any rate, under the weight of competition and the worsening crisis, there is a worldwide trend for less and less money to be invested in maintenance and fewer and fewer qualified staff to be employed in maintenance and repairs. The capitalist crisis makes the nuclear plants even less safe, as safety standards are lowered by employing less qualified staff.

But above all it has become clear that of the 442 operating power plants worldwide many of them were built in earthquake-prone areas. In Japan alone more than 50 power plants were constructed in such areas. In the USA more than a dozen nuclear plants with a similar risk were constructed. In Russia there are many nuclear power plants without an automatic mechanism for shutting down in case of nuclear incidents. In many Russian nuclear power plants cracks and surface subsidence were reported. Chernobyl was probably no exception: such a disaster can occur at any time again. (Le Monde p49).  In Turkey the reactor Akkuyu Bay was built near the Ecemi fault. India and China are planning to build the most new nuclear power plants. Yet China with its 27 new nuclear power plants under construction is one of the most seismologically active countries[4].

Saudi Arabia is planning to construct 16 power plants, not least to be better armed against Iran.

In Pakistan a new reactor is to be opened near Lahore, where there is a moderate to high risk of earthquakes. Taiwan has 6 reactors although the country is in one of the most endangered seismological zones. Instead of considering the dangers of nature capitalism has constructed global time bombs. And while safety standards in the most highly developed countries have turned out to be insufficient, the safety philosophy is even weaker in those countries which are starting to draw on nuclear energy. They have even less experience in dealing with incidents and accidents. Hard to imagine what might happen in case of a nuclear disaster…

Moreover the operating time of old nuclear power plants which were to be shut down are now to be prolonged. In the USA their operating time has been prolonged to 60 years, in Russia to 45 years.

While the control mechanisms over nuclear industry by states on a national scale have proven to be incomplete and insufficient, on an international scale the states are opposed to restrictive safety standards or too much intervention by international monitoring organisations. National sovereignty takes precedence over safety.

In Germany the government decided in the summer 2011 to abandon nuclear energy by 2022. As an immediate measure, some nuclear power plants were switched off shortly after the Fukushima explosion.  Does German capital act in a more responsible manner? Not at all! Because only a few months before the same government had prolonged the operating time of several nuclear power plants, i.e. before Fukushima it had planned to maintain nuclear energy. If, however, it has decided to abandon nuclear energy now, this corresponds on the one hand to a tactical political move, because the government hopes to improve its chances of being re-elected; and on the other hand there was an economic calculation, because German industry is very competitive with its alternative energy production know-how. German industry now hopes for very profitable markets. Moreover the whole problem of getting rid of the nuclear waste remains unsolved…

To sum up: with or without Fukushima humanity is still faced with these nuclear time bombs ticking away. In many places they can ignite a new disaster because of earthquakes or other weak points.

Nuclear power generated electricity – cheap, clean and without any alternative? Profits at the expense of society and nature

Time and again we hear the arguments put forward by nuclear energy’s defenders that nuclear power generated electricity is cheaper, cleaner, and without any alternative. It is a fact that the construction of a power plant costs gigantic sums, which – thanks to the help of state subsidies – are shouldered by the electricity supply companies. But the bulk of the costs of the disposal of nuclear waste is pushed onto society by the operating companies. Furthermore the whole economic calculation put forward by the nuclear lobby does not take into consideration the cost of disposing of the waste. And once the nuclear plants which are more than 50 years old have to be dismantled, there are tremendous costs in tearing them down. In the UK it was estimated that the cost of demolishing the existing nuclear power plants would amount to 100 billion euros, some 3 billion euros per nuclear plant. In the USA they want to make it even cheaper – only 104 million dollars are to be spent for the 104 operating nuclear power plants. In France the demolition of Superphénix will cost 2.1 billion euros (Le Monde, p. 68). And again, the remaining nuclear waste cannot be disposed of in any way.

And if there is a nuclear incident or accident, normally the state has to intervene and come to the rescue. In Fukushima the follow-up cost, the size of which is yet unknown, are estimated to amount to 200-300 billion euros. Tepco could not raise this money. The Japanese state has promised its “help”, provided that the Tepco employees make sacrifices – their pensions are to be cut, wages lowered, thousands of jobs to be axed. Special tax charges are scheduled in the Japanese budget. Having drawn the lessons from previous accidents the operating companies in France have limited their liability to 700 million euros in case of accidents: this is peanuts in comparison to the possible economic costs of a nuclear disaster.

From an economic and ecological view the real costs of the running of the plants and the unsolved question of nuclear waste are a bottomless pit. In every respect nuclear power is an irrational project. The nuclear power companies receive massive amounts of money for energy production, but they shove the follow-up costs onto society. The nuclear power plants embody the insurmountable contradiction between the search for profit and the long-term protection of man and nature.

Crisis and depletion of nature

Nuclear power is not the only danger for the environment. Capitalism practises a permanent depletion of nature. It constantly plunders all resources without any concern for sustainability, for harmony with nature. It treats nature like a garbage landfill.

By now entire stretches of the Earth have become uninhabitable, whole areas of the sea have become poisoned. The system has embarked upon an irrational course, where more and more new technological means are developed to deplete natural resources, while at the same time the investment into this exploitation becomes more and more costly and immense and the risks and potential of destruction increase. When in 2010 at the shores of the leading industrial power USA the oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded, the investigation into the accident unmasked striking deficiencies in the safety regulations. 

The pressure flowing from competition forces all the rivals, who have to invest large sums of money in the construction and the maintenance of production sites and their operation, to try to save money and to undermine safety standards. The most recent example is the oil pollution off the Atlantic shores of Brazil. All this negligence does not just crop up in technologically backward countries. In fact it takes on the most unbelievable proportions precisely in the most highly developed countries, because there competition is often even fiercer.

The whole humanity is threatened

In comparison to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Fukushima meant that for the first time a metropolitan area such as Tokyo with its 35 million inhabitants was directly threatened.

Nuclear energy was developed during World War Two as an instrument of warfare. The nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities inaugurated a new level of destruction in this decadent system. The arms race during the ‘cold war’ after WW2, with its systematic deployment of nuclear weapons, pushed the military capacity for destruction to the point where humanity could be wiped out in one stroke. Today more than two decades after the end of the ‘cold war’ there are still some 20,000 nuclear war heads which can still annihilate us many times over.

With the nuclear disasters in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima it has become obvious that humanity is not only threatened with annihilation through the military use of nuclear power. Its “civilian” use for the production of energy can also cause the destruction of humanity.

The Japanese government estimated that due to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima the radioactive level of Caesium-137 was 168 times higher than the one provoked by the nuclear bomb of Hiroshima in 1945 (Shimbun, 25/8/2011). The amount of Caesium-137 was estimated to have reached 15.000 Terabecquerel, while the effect of the American atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima was ‘only’ 89 Terabecquerel.

The whole development since the beginning of the disaster shows that the authorities and Tepco lost control, that the scope of the disaster was trivialised, that the costs of the rescue operation were skyrocketing and that the people in charge had not drawn the necessary conclusions. On the contrary. Not only concerning the question of nuclear power, but concerning the protection of the environment as a whole, the ruling class is becoming more and more ruthless – as the results of the recent Durban summit show. The destruction of the environment has been reaching higher levels, and the ruling class is totally unable to change the course of events and to take appropriate measures. The planet is sacrificed for the sake of profit.

Moreover the worsening economic crisis, which sharpened even more in 2011, leaves the ruling class with less room for manoeuvre for protecting nature. Thus capitalism pushes humanity towards the abyss through the effects of the crisis such as hunger, pauperisation and trade wars, shooting wars etc., while its power of destruction threatens the whole of civilisation. The nuclear power plants are only the tip of the iceberg.

A race against time has begun. Either capitalism destroys the entire planet or the exploited and oppressed – with the working class at their head – succeed in overthrowing the system. Because capitalism poses a threat to humanity on different levels (crisis, war, environment) it is insufficient to struggle only against one aspect of capitalist reality, e.g. against nuclear energy. We have to highlight the link between these different threats and their roots in the capitalist system. During the 1980s and 1990s there were many “single issue” movements (such as the struggle against nuclear energy, against militarism, against the housing shortage etc.), which reduced their focus only to one aspect. Today more than ever it is necessary to show the bankruptcy of the entire system, to demonstrate that the system cannot take humanity out of this impasse. It is true that the connections between the different elements are not easy to understand, but if we do not take the link between crisis, war and ecological destruction into account our struggle will end up in the dead-end of thinking that things could be reformed within the system.

Di 1/12

 

 


[1] Northeast of Fukushima the two currents, the warm Kuoshio and the cold Oyashio, merge. This is one of the most abundant areas of the earth for fishing. And in this area Japanese fishing boats catch roughly half the amount of fish consumed in Japan. Thus fish supplies in Japan could be endangered. “Such a high emission of radioactivity into the sea has never been measured.” hpnw.de/commonFiles/pdfs/Atomenergie/Zu_den_Auswirkungen_der_Reaktorkatastrophe_von_Fukushima_auf_den_Pazifik_und_die_Nahrungsketten.pdfttp://www.ip

 

 

[2] According to information from Japanese environmental organisations, the government is planning to spread contaminated debris from the Fukushima area across the whole country and to burn it. The Japanese ministry for the environment estimates the amount of building rubble at around 23.8 million tons. As the Mainichi Daily News reported a first shipment of 1000 tons of debris from Iwate to Tokyo took place in early November 2011. The Iwate authorities estimate that this debris contains 133 bq/kg of radioactive material. Before March 2011 this would have been illegal, but the Japanese government lowered the norms in July from 100 bq/kg to 8000 bq/kg, and in October to 10.000 bq/kg. The city of Tokyo announced that it would receive some 500.000 tons of radioactive rubble. http://news.ippnw.de/index.php?id=72,

 

[3]In France, where more than 44 reactors are located at rivers, more than 57% of the water taken from the sea and rivers is used for the production of electricity. A French nuclear plant, Graveline, which needs 300 cubic meter of water per second, returns the water 12° warmer to the river. And if during dry seasons there is not sufficient water available, some nuclear plants have to be cooled by helicopter. (Les dossiers du Canard Enchainé, ‘Nucléaire, c’est par où la sortie?, le grand débat après Fukushima’, p80)

 

[4] How much safety is valued by Chinese capital can be seen through the training of qualified workers. China would need each year at least 6000 nuclear experts for the planned new nuclear power plants, but presently only 600 are trained every year. In China some 500,000 dollars are spent every year on safety; in the USA 7 million dollars are spent per year (Le Monde, p. 52).