Japan: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown

May 9, 2011

From the new issue of NEWS & LETTERS, May-June 2011

Part III of

Draft for Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 2011-2012

Revolution and counter-revolution take world stage


  • I. The Arab Spring
  • II. The wars at home
  • III. Japan: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown
  • IV. Revolution, organization and philosophy
  • V. Marxist-Humanist Tasks

(Part I and II were posted in the last two days.  Parts IV and V to come tomorrow.)

III. Japan: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown

Nuclear power–which came into being to mask the genocidal nature of the nuclear arsenal first used by the U.S. to decimate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan–is a key dimension of the tragedy tormenting Japan since the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. By mid-April, close to 14,000 were counted dead and 14,000 missing. Survivors came together in the best human spirit to help each other in dire conditions. However, the already gargantuan toil of rescue, relief and reconstruction has been infinitely complicated by the hazards presented by the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Radioactive materials released by its damaged reactors disrupted fishing, agriculture and even emergency operations at the plant itself.

The one-two punch of the earthquake and tsunami caused what Japanese had been told “can’t happen here”: the emergency cooling systems failed. A series of explosions, fires and partial meltdowns hit the plant’s six reactors and their storage ponds for highly radioactive, hot and toxic spent fuel. Pieces of the dangerous fuel rods were scattered up to a mile away. In the weeks since–with no end in sight–the plant has spewed radioactive steam and water into the air, ocean, groundwater and soil. Regulators have found vegetables, milk and meat–and drinking water as far away as Tokyo–exceeding legal limits for radiation. Concentrations of radioactive iodine up to 7.5 million times the legal limit were measured in nearby seawater.

The task of trying to keep the reactors and spent fuel ponds from exploding in a much worse way–like Chernobyl in 1986–will continue for months. What little can be done to clean up the area and contain the materials will take even longer. The contamination goes well beyond the government’s official evacuation zone, which has been criticized as much too small by the nuclear-friendly International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.S. government, and a coalition of 168 Japanese citizens’ groups.

Both the government and the plant’s owner, TEPCO, were totally unprepared for the situation, as is evident from their bumbling efforts in trying to prevent further explosions and meltdowns and stem the leak of radioactive water. The failure of one improvisation after another, together with the stream of misinformation, were reminiscent of BP’s panicky response to its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico one year earlier. However, in the midst of the confusion, TEPCO did manage to submit to regulators its plans to build two more reactors at the devastated plant!

The situation would be far worse if not for the heroic efforts of the nuclear workers–many of whom are low-paid, temporary laborers who perform the most dangerous jobs. They are thrown into unknown radiation levels, because so many measurement instruments were knocked out by the explosions or by levels of radiation they are not designed to withstand.

Documents obtained from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission contradicted its public reassurances that this country’s nuclear plants are better prepared for catastrophic events like earthquakes, hurricanes and bombings than Japan’s. Moreover, last year U.S. nukes had 14 “near-miss” events–including some emergency cooling system failures, a key factor in Japan’s current troubles. Meanwhile, the discovery of radioactive contamination of water in South Dakota, including in a number of Native American reservations, highlights the long-lasting threat from abandoned uranium mines, which are but one step in the nuclear cycle.[16] Yet President Obama is still pushing a “nuclear renaissance”!

After each industrial disaster, capitalism seems to take more steps to repeat than to prevent that type of disaster. One year after BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, two protests called attention to how it is still harming people and the environment, while deep-water oil drilling permits are again being issued with only minor changes in protective measures: 1) an April 14 protest by Louisiana victims of the oil spill, together with locked-out construction workers, at BP’s annual shareholder meeting in London, England; 2) an April 18 sit-in by 50 young activists at the U.S. Department of the Interior, with 300 more protesting outside, demanding a clean energy future, and denouncing the Department’s routine approval of deep-water oil drilling and massive coal mining, including the destruction of Appalachian mountains.

The disasters wrought by state-capitalism keep pointing to the truth of what Marx wrote long before human beings had learned to split the atom: “To have one basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie.”

Like the BP spill, each nuclear accident reveals that lie manifested as the fetishism of science. The glorification of “infallible” science, as opposed to the human being, as the repository of all truth and creativity, is the natural outgrowth of a society where living labor is dominated by dead labor (capital) incorporating science within itself. Science appears to have appropriated all the attributes of life, and human beings must serve its dictates. The ideology is perpetuated not just for its own sake but because it serves to hide capitalism’s total dependence on exploitation of labor.

Opposition to nuclear power has surged once again since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, with demonstrations in several countries. That includes Germany, where the government quickly reversed its policy, now promising to close all nuclear reactors by 2020; and India, where one protester was killed during an attack on a police station close to a proposed plant site in an earthquake-prone area. In Japan itself, not only have there been weekly demonstrations calling for all the country’s nuclear reactors to be shut down, the same call has for the first time come from the National Japan Fisheries Union, while activists appealed to stop schools in contaminated zones from opening.

The truth is that state-capitalism’s drive for ever greater production compels production of ever more energy from whatever source, flouting all scientific findings on the threat posed to humanity, whether from radiation or from climate change. Truly, the only solution can come, not from a new energy technology but from what Karl Marx called “human power which is its own end.” That can become the real principle of society only when it is no longer ruled by the law of value, the domination of dead over living labor–when revolution succeeds not only in overthrowing the old but in creating the new, truly human society.

(to be continued…)

16. See “NRC’s Record in 2010: A UCS Assessment,” report by David Wright for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Talli Naumann, “Radiation high on South Dakota reservations,” Native Sun News, 3/31/11.

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