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Japan crisis: Smoke over Fukushima

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Japan has been thrown into its worst crisis since the Second World War as an earthquake and Tsunami has devastated whole areas of the country. Now a crisis at a nuclear power station threatens to make what is already an appalling crisis even worse

11 March will forever be remembered as a tragic day for the Japanese people. Thousands are missing with a death toll of over 10,000 people expected once all bodies are recovered from the debris. The Tsunami that engulfed the land laid waste to whole districts, estimates of the death toll rose by the hour.

Already well over a thousand are known to have died, tens of thousands are missing and hundreds of thousands are homeless. To make matters even worse, further aftershocks and even another earthquake are a possibility.

At the same time, there is now the threat of a nuclear meltdown in three power stations. A potential nuclear catastrophe hangs over the country, a catastrophe which was still being denied and minimised by the government and the power companies as late as yesterday.

Was this simply a natural disaster?
When such events take place they are described as a “natural disaster" as though human agency had nothing to do with it. Of course nature, of which we are a part, has its own laws which we try our best to understand, to foresee and use or at least adapt our actions to.

The movement of the continental plates in the Earth's crust and resulting phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, are part of the essential functioning of our planet. The ability to accurately predict, is still the music of the t future and to control them probably impossible.

But capitalist governments often express a blithe technological optimism that such problems can be overcome. However when a catastrophe actually strikes it unloads the responsibility onto “the power of nature,” conveniently forgetting that it was human planning (or that a lack of it) that built cities, dams, power stations on major earthquake fault zones.

In Japan, where the collision of the Pacific and Eurasian plates makes earthquakes regular events, an overconfidence in the undoubted successes of earthquake technology has led to ignoring the fact that huge numbers of older building were constructed before the advances which enabled Tokyo’s modern skyscrapers to survive the latest.

The sheer scale of the quake on March 11 exposed this over confidence. A quake registering 8.9 on the Richter scale releases about 10 times as much energy as the “major earthquake" upon which planning is normally based. The proximity of the epicentre to the coast near Sendai clearly overwhelmed the tsunami warning system.

Despite all available precautions, the immediate effect of the earthquake and the flood killed several thousand people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. As well as the ports, many industrial areas and refineries were also hard-hit so that some areas were overwhelmed by a sea of flames. As a result, a social catastrophe for many Japanese workers, already hit by the economic crisis, appears unavoidable.

But there is more to it than that. Despite the well-known danger of earthquakes, 54 nuclear power stations have been built in Japan and they are responsible for one third of power generation. It is argued that nowhere has safer nuclear power stations which are built to the highest standards of earthquake safety. The fact that these standards are based on the assumption that an earthquake stronger than 8.2 is unthinkable, shows that the events following on from March 11 are a calculated disaster.

Indeed, there had already been “incidents" as a result of various weaker earthquakes. For example, in 2007, there was a release of contaminated material into the sea for several hours and one power station had to be taken out of commission for months. Nuclear power stations are not only built near the tsunami-threatened coast, they are built in giant complexes with several reactor blocks concentrated in one area. In addition, the nuclear power generators are well-known for their particularly dictatorial work regimes and their secretive attitude to the release of information. The now famous power company, Tokyo Electric Power, Tepco, is well-known for covering up accidents, harsh treatment of “insubordinate" workers and their “creative" approach to measurements.

On March 11, as the quake and tsunami broke over the coast, 11 nuclear power plants were quickly closed down. A fire broke out at the Onagawa reactor but was put out. It became clear that in Fukushima up to three of the six reactor blocks had seen a failure in their cooling systems, later it was revealed that something similar happened at the Fukushima Two complex just a few kilometres away. The impact of the earthquake and tsunami had disrupted the energy supply to the cooling systems and the emergency power source did not operate. The “completely impossible" had happened.

Despite closing down, that is interrupting the nuclear chain reaction by separating the fuel rods, the reactors continued to generate enormous heat which could only have been reduced by the back-up cooling systems. On top of that, the evaporation of the cooling water threatened to allow a meltdown of the fuel rods, which would restart the atomic chain reaction and make a fracturing of the reactor's pressure casing unavoidable. The resulting enormous pressures would cause an explosion, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere over several kilometres. Just such a scenario took place less than 25 years ago, on April 26 1986 at the soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. On that occasion, the meltdown of the core was so fast that the explosion contaminated the land over an area with a radius of hundreds of kilometres and an even greater catastrophe was only averted through the heroic intervention of hundreds of soviet soldiers and firemen who lost their lives, more or less quickly, by exposure to the burning core.

At that time, in the capitalist world, the blame was put on both soviet technology, as the fundamental cause of the disaster, and on the policy of secrecy over all information. As the accident at Fukushima shows, accurate information is the first thing to be lost in the atomic fog under capitalism as well. In Fukushima, only scraps of information were released, usually only when developments could no longer be denied. The fact that Tepco did not have the situation under control only became clear as the evacuation area was repeatedly extended. The company also down played the significance of the 1,000-fold increase in radiation levels in the control room but had to admit that the cooling system had failed to work. How a meltdown was to be avoided was not explained. Clearly, the pressure in the reactor and the formation of gas in the cooling system led to a leak, which was then later explained away as "releasing pressure". In the end, the mixture of gases in the reactor building led to a massive hydrogen explosion which destroyed the entire building. Here, too, there were only vague explanations from Tepco that this was related to the "release of pressure" and that there had been no increase in radiation levels in the area. However, in the meantime, the presence of caesium isotopes, which pointed to the beginning of the meltdown process, could no longer be denied. The extension of the exclusion zone to 20 kilometres and the evacuation of 50,000 people also suggested that this was not simply a "normal procedure". Tepco's well-known attitude to measurements became completely unbelievable after the first victims had to be treated for the effects of radiation.

Certainly, in comparison to Chernobyl, there are signs in Fukushima that the outcome will not be as serious. On the one hand, in Fukushima, the reactor was already closed down and beginning to cool. The process of meltdown appears to have begun at a "less dangerous" stage. As a result, the scenario is more likely to be one of a slow release of radioactive material into a relatively restricted area rather than an explosive release into the wider atmosphere. Secondly, the weather pattern will drive the radioactive cloud out over the sea - in other circumstances it would have affected millions of people.

If, as a result, “only” several hundred square kilometres and "the sea" are irradiated, it would be cynical to speak of "luck". That would mean accepting that, with this application of nuclear technology, the dangers to the lives of millions and the contamination of huge areas of land is left to "the luck of the draw".

Lessons from the catastrophe

This latest nuclear catastrophe clearly shows that, under the existing circumstances, control of nuclear power plants must be taken out of the hands of capitalist firms as quickly as possible. There is no "absolute" level of safety that could prevent the "worst possible accident". Alongside the question of where to store contaminated materials, which, from a geological point of view, is insoluble, the additional threat of such a worst possible accident can only lead to one conclusion: decommission as quickly as possible! We need an energy plan based on renewable energy that will allow a planned shift away from fossil fuels and atomic energy, under workers' control and as soon as possible!

In Japan, the immediate task is to deal with the catastrophe taking place before our eyes, to limit the damage to the population as far as possible. That means that, in the first place, the coordination of protective measures and then the investigation into the causes of the catastrophe cannot be left in the hands of the power company and those representatives of the government who have shown themselves to be profit-hungry criminals whose first priority is covering up and minimising the danger, for whom protecting the image of their nuclear power stations is ultimately more important than the lives of millions. On the contrary, responsible managers and owners, together with their supporters in the administration, must be held to account.

All information and records must be opened to those who work in the nuclear power industry and experts who are trusted by the labour movement and environmental activists so that they can be examined and made public in an objective and understandable form. This will also ensure more effective implementation and coordination of rescue work, which should also be under the control of the rescue services, fire brigades and the trade unions and not any corrupt officials more interested in profits for power companies than in the interests of the workforce and residents.

Secondly, not only the nuclear power stations but the entire energy supply in Japan should be expropriated without compensation, that is, they should be nationalised under workers' control. On this basis an energy plan for the quickest possible transfer to renewable energy and a reduction in the use and a reduction in demand must be developed to allow the fastest possible transfer away from fossil fuels and nuclear technology.

These immediate measures will no doubt conflict with the profits of Japanese capital, such demands will, of course, meet the resistance of both the big firms and government. That changes nothing in their urgency. It will be down to the working class movement of Japan to take up the political struggle for such demands.

This struggle itself, alongside the inability of capitalism to establish a viable and sustainable relationship between humanity and nature, raises the question of the need to overcome capitalism and replace it by a democratically planned economy. Just as the catastrophe at Chernobyl convinced millions that Stalinism could not survive, so Fukushima and the tsunami can have a similar effect. Only when humanity takes its fate into its own hands, when production and distribution serve the needs of the great majority and are not organised simply for the profit of the few, will a world in which humanity is able to secure the natural basis for its own existence become possible.