The magnitude 9 earthquake that struck off the eastern coast of Japan on 11 March was the biggest disaster to hit Japan since the US unleashed nuclear destruction in 1945. After the devastation of the earthquake there followed an enormous tsunami, in some areas it is recorded as reaching the third floor of buildings as it hit the Japanese coast. In the resulting destruction a number of nuclear reactors were damaged. The Fukushima I nuclear reactor reached level 7 on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INES scale, the highest level accident.
One month on, the Japanese Red Cross published its assessment of the catastrophe. “...the number of confirmed dead was 13,127 and missing/unaccounted for totalled 14,348, with 4,793 people being treated for injuries.” Many of the dead were buried under mud and debris or washed out to sea. The latest figures from the National Police Agency have put the dead at 14,517 with 11,432 missing.
The assessment then focuses on the survivors. 127,817 persons, displaced by the disaster, are being housed in evacuation centres; these are mainly school buildings. This figure doesn’t include those living with friends and relatives. Some have returned to their homes despite the lack of water and electricity.
What about the long term psychological effects? “In an informal survey, which tried to gauge the psychological impact of what victims felt were their three greatest concerns, in Miyagi Prefecture, 53% cited money (for living expenses), 50% cited work and housing was cited by 40%. A significant 55% said they continue to feel traumatized from the experience.” The assessment doesn’t mention the psychological effects of living near one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history.
There will be long term effects from radiation. Radiation has been recorded in the fish stock, in the soil and in the water supply. The government’s reassurances on safety are questionable in light of previous cover ups. 80,000 residents have been moved from the area around the Fukushima plant.
After the trauma, what next?
Standard & Poor, one of the world’s biggest credit ratings agencies, has estimated the cost of rebuilding could be 50 trillion yen ($612bn, £372bn). This is double the figure the Japanese government have estimated. Before the tsunami Japan had the world’s highest public debt. The credit ratings agencies have sent a warning shot to Japan that it will downgrade its credit rating if it attempts to create large amounts of debt to deal with the disaster. This can mean only one thing for workers in Japan. Lower wages and higher taxes will pay for the repairs.
As well as repairing the damage the government may be faced with the prospect of bailing out some of the country’s largest corporations. Of most immediate danger is TEPCO the company that operated the Fukushima nuclear reactors. As well as dealing with the cost of the management of the damaged nuclear reactors they may be faced with huge compensation claims from those who contract illnesses from the radiation.
A few days before Standard & Poor gave a negative assessment of the biggest of Japans corporations, downgrading the credit rating of the 6 largest. The major car manufacturers have drastically reduced production at plants globally. Most of the blame has been placed at the door of the disaster due to breaks in the supply chain. Though it must be said that Toyota announced a 39% fall in profits during the final quarter of 2010.
The outlook for workers in Japan is grim. After the trauma of the natural disaster comes the trauma of trying to rebuild their lives under the weight of the economic crisis. Under capitalism it makes perfect sense to build nuclear power plants in major earthquake zones and impoverish disaster victims. That is why capitalism is the biggest disaster that humanity has to face.
To overcome the disaster of capitalism it will require the combined struggle of the world’s working class. Only in a communist society will we see a response to natural disasters based on human needs.