Fukushima: A disaster manufactured in the imperial boardrooms of capital

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Chris Williams:Conscious actions by the ruling elite, not natural causes, led directly to the triple nuclear meltdowns. The decisions they made were dictated by the prime directive of capitalism: there is no higher power than the God of Profit.

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by Chris Williams

They may not live in castles anymore, but the glass-plated skyscrapers that tower over the great cities of the world, in faceless anonymity, still signify the imperious domain of the ruling elite. It is from these places, not the featureless depths of the earth’s roiling crust, which were the decisive cause of the triple nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant on 11th March 2011.

An independent report by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), the first independent investigation committee authorized by the Japanese Diet (parliament) in its 66 year history, was released to both houses of the Diet on July 5. The chairman of the report begins with zero equivocation as to the ultimate cause of the nuclear meltdowns, which are still preventing tens of thousands of people from returning to their homes; returns that for many, are likely never to come:

“The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 were natural disasters of a magnitude that shocked the entire world. Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

How could such a “profoundly manmade disaster” have come to pass? A multitude of errors, “willful negligence”, and a “reluctance to question authority” led to nuclear power becoming “an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion.” It sounds all too eerily familiar to anyone who has spent time investigating the US nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the collusion between the NRC and US nuclear corporations.

In a line that must indubitably stoke the anger and sorrow of all those made homeless, all those who have lost their livelihoods and all those tens of thousands more who now are left to agonize over radioactive contamination for themselves and their children for decades to come, the report states, “The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011.”

In other words, contrary to all the talk about “an unforeseeable event” from governments around the world and nuclear apologists of the left and right, the nuclear meltdowns, with all their untold and long-term consequences for the physical and mental health of the people of the region, were entirely preventable if the corporation which operated the plants, TEPCO, or the government bodies charged with regulating the nuclear industry, NISA and METI, had taken the appropriate safety precautions:

“The operator (TEPCO), the regulatory bodies (NISA and NSC) and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI), all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements—such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a serious radiation release.”

The report notes that these organizations had known of the inability of the reactors to withstand such an earthquake and tsunami since 2006. It recommends across the board, substantive reforms to all aspects of nuclear regulation, the operation of the plants, the legal framework within which they operate and the emergency response, evacuation and disaster preparedness plans, all of which were found wanting.

It warns that these must not be cosmetic name changes or simply shifts of personnel but a root and branch reordering of priorities and fundamental reforms as government regulators and the corporation as organizations all failed to protect the public, as is their legal duty:

“There were many opportunities for NISA, NSC and TEPCO to take measures that would have prevented the accident, but they did not do so. They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization’s self interest— not in the interest of public safety.”

In an echo of the BP Gulf oil spill of 2010, where it was found that BP had no viable emergency response plan, “TEPCO’s manual for emergency response to a severe accident was completely ineffective, and the measures it specified did not function.” In yet another similarity with the BP disaster, where US government regulators were found to be having sex and drug parties with BP officials, the report speaks of “a cozy relationship between the operators, the regulators and academic scholars that can only be described as totally inappropriate.”

However, fundamental reform to the nuclear industry, and TEPCO in particular, is looking less likely without a further outpouring of national protest the like of which Japan has not seen in decades. This is because TEPCO is a giant corporation with a stranglehold on electricity production and much else through various related companies which allow the company,

“Thanks to a virtual monopoly and a murky electricity pricing system, it has become one of the biggest sources of loosely regulated cash for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who have repaid Tepco with unquestioning support and with the type of lax oversight that contributed to the nuclear crisis.”

TEPCO had net income (i.e. profits) of $1.7 billion in 2009 through its corporate affiliates and ownership of 192 electricity plants that produce up to one third of the electricity in Japan. Overall, Japanese people pay twice as much for electricity as do those in the US. TEPCO is, therefore, in the current neoliberal jargon justifying yet more daylight robbery through ongoing bank bailouts, apparently another corporation “too big to fail.”

Amazingly, TEPCO is pushing to restart some of its own reactors despite the widely held belief, now well documented in the government’s independent report, that the corporation was largely to blame. Meanwhile, TEPCO, in its own report on the accident exonerated itself, citing instead the size of the tsunami and government blunders as the causes of the meltdowns.

Conversely, not to mention much more believably, the authors of the NAIIC report conclude that the accident was manmade:

“The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘manmade.'”

Some people, a lot of people, should be going to jail. Betrayal of the people and their right to be free of radioactive contamination, particularly a people that has already suffered the horror of atomic weapons used against its civilian population, is unconscionable. What could have driven these decisions taken by so many people in all these different organizations? Led them to behave in such a criminally irresponsible manner?

Ultimately, we get to the heart of the matter:

“As the nuclear power business became less profitable over the years, TEPCO’s management began to put more emphasis on cost cutting and increasing Japan’s reliance on nuclear power.”

Put another way, the decisions taken were dictated by the prime directive of capitalism: make profit at all costs, grow by any means necessary. Cut whatever corners you need to, bribe and cajole whoever is necessary, denigrate and belittle those who oppose you; there is no higher power to which you will answer other than the God of Profit. This is the iron law of capital accumulation.

The consequences of those decisions, taken in the faraway, plush boardrooms of the nuclear corporations, and the lack of credible government information since the disaster, have now created the fear of the people, the disbanding of families, and the destruction of their livelihoods in Fukushima prefecture:

“They continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment. There is no foreseeable end to the decontamination and restoration activities that are essential for rebuilding communities.”

What an utterly appalling way to make electricity. No foreseeable end to decontamination and restoration activities. Even without considering the issue of nuclear waste, the staggering cost of building and operating nuclear plants, or the umbilical cord that indelibly connects the nuclear power industry to the nuclear weapons and defense industry, can anyone honestly say that as a highly technological society, we have no better alternatives to generating electricity than operating nuclear power stations?

The response by the people of Japan has been tremendous and inspiring. Tens of thousands have regularly picketed government and corporate offices to prevent the restart of reactors, 7.5 million people have signed a petition against the restarting of any of the 54 idled reactors which have been kept shuttered due to this massive and unprecedented outpouring of activism, organizing and anger. A new anti-nuclear movement is being born from below.

As of May, the people of Japan celebrated the shut-down of the last of the 54 Japanese reactors, even as there were no power cuts. Our power defeated the nuclear power! People’s joy was short-lived however. Despite the “setback” of the Fukushima nuclear disaster – which should now surely be described at the very least as a disaster-waiting-to-happen, nuclear corporations are not throwing in the towel and admitting that nuclear power has got to go.

Through a carefully orchestrated media campaign of fear-mongering based on the threat of power cuts and government announcements about the dangers a lack of electricity pose to Japan’s fragile economy, they have managed to successfully argue for the restart of reactors in the western industrial region around Osaka. In a rare televised appeal to the Japanese public, the new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who is entirely pro-nuclear, made the case for the necessary restarts.

However, in another new piece of evidence that should halt all talk all restarts, the NAIIC report notes that it cannot say whether the earthquake itself – not the tsunami – was partly responsible for the reactor meltdowns. This finding invalidates the “stress tests” that the nuclear plants have undergone to prove that they are safe to operate because those tests were based on the assumption that it was only the tsunami, not the earthquake, which caused the structural problems and loss of power at the plant.

Meanwhile, a separate government panel of experts has declared that, based on what happened with the tsunami from the March 11th earthquake, 34m, or 112 feet high tsunamis are possible along the Pacific coast. Every single one of the 54 Japanese nuclear reactors is situated along the coast!

The tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, and swept away entire villages in the area, causing 19,000 deaths, was 14m (45 feet) high, less than half what is predicted as now possible. A 2003 report had put the maximum that had to be planned for at 20m (60 feet) but clearly a 14m wave can overwhelm coastal defenses and inundate nuclear plants such as at Fukushima-Daiichi, which had only anticipated and prepared for a 6m (20 foot) high wave – especially if they have already been compromised by the preceding earthquake. The only rational answer is to permanently shut down all the reactors, break apart and dismantle the nuclear corporations as threats to public health, take further measures to conserve electricity and speed up the program of building the infrastructure necessary for a clean energy economy.

However, there are a few broader conclusions to draw from this report and the litany of similar cases of accidents such as the BP spill where the corporate drive for profit is like an unstoppable tsunami rationalizing all manner of health and safety evasions and cutbacks.

Firstly, this is not about a few bad apples or irresponsible, corrupt people. This is about how capitalism operates. How else does one explain the need for every single area of capital accumulation – from the nuclear industry, to oil and gas, to pharmaceuticals to food production – to have independent regulators preventing the corporations from doing what they are primed to do: make profit at all costs? If the regulators are in the pockets of the corporations that bestride the planet as unaccountable behemoths with their colossal economies, often larger than most individual states, all hell breaks loose.

Second, whatever those deluded environmentalists who are pro-nuclear think, there is no scenario in which a sane person can be pro-nuclear when the nuke plants are operating within a social system that has no ethical, social, ecological or moral concerns and drives the individuals who run the system into immoral actions. The only thing crazier than boiling water by splitting atoms is boiling water by splitting atoms in a social system driven by profit.

Five years ago the great leftist social and ecological thinker and activist Barry Commoner was asked in a New York Times interview whether the environmentalists who have now turned to nuclear power as an answer to global warming had a point. To which he answered:

“No. This is a good example of shortsighted environmentalism. It superficially makes sense to say, ‘Here’s a way of producing energy without carbon dioxide.’ But every activity that increases the amount of radioactivity to which we are exposed is idiotic. There has to be a life-and-death reason to do it. I mean, we haven’t solved the problem of waste yet. We still have used fuel sitting all over the place. I think the fact that some people who have established a reputation as environmentalists have adopted this is appalling.”

Third, within capitalism, there are certain essential economic activities which need to be thought of as they were before the acceleration of capitalist orthodoxy of deregulation and privatization that occurred with the birth of neoliberalism 30 years ago. Before the drive for privatization that necessitated the evisceration of the organized power of the working class, as the balance of class forces were forcibly tilted toward the corporations and away from us.

Activities where we are not seen as customers for a commodity that we buy from a for-profit corporation, but rather as citizens, with a right to a service from the government that we elect to represent our interests.

Examples of such essential services are the provision of education, access to water, healthcare, a pension, public transportation – the most basic attributes for a productive and healthy life and a functioning society. But this idea must also extend to the provision of electricity. Not just because it is fundamental to the way we live, but, just as importantly, for ecological reasons.

We need to conserve electricity and energy use in general and set up systems to ensure that there is a nationally organized program to do so. However, that will never happen with electricity production when the utilities are privately owned. Private electric utilities make more money the more electricity they sell us. So, having consumers use less would be counter-productive and irrational from a corporate perspective. If they’re regulated and offered incentives to sell us less, they just charge more for each individual unit and pass the costs on. Furthermore, corporations are always going to spend as little as they can get away with on infrastructure, safety and maintenance, as illustrated to a horrific extent by the nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

Electricity should be a service that is publically provided, not a commodity to be bought. In other words, we need to re-nationalize the electricity grid and see it as an opportunity to build a new energy infrastructure, one that is efficient and has at its heart energy conservation based around alternative sources of energy. Not outdated, dirty, and dangerous 19th and 20th century technologies such as coal, oil, gas or uranium but clean, renewable – and safe – wind, solar and geothermal sources. Energy sources that Japan and United States, have in great abundance.

It’s crystal clear however, that without an organized mass movement from below that unites social and ecological issues together into a single movement for jobs, sustainability and justice, one that tilts the balance of social power back in our favor, as the Japanese people are attempting right now, those changes will not happen. Absent the building of such a movement, we will eventually be left living on an irradiated cinder of a planet where they sell us hazmat suits at inflated prices from the safety of their glittering corporate towers.

In India, there is a titanic struggle going on between people organized under the banner of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and the Indian government. The Indian state is determined, despite Fukushima, to increase its reliance on nuclear power tenfold, so that it represents 25% of electricity production. This in a country where almost half the population, 400 million people, lack access to electricity and decades old Indian wind turbines produce twice as much electricity as current Indian nuclear plants that have already received billions of dollars in funding. If these wind turbines alone were upgraded, let along building more modern ones or taking advantage of the plentiful solar energy that India basks in, they could supply a much larger segment of electricity and obviate the need for the nuclear plants.

Due to the growth and persistence of the Indian activists struggle, the state is becoming increasingly violent, dispatching thousands of troops to put down protests. The response by PMANE and the anti-nuclear activists to state violence and intimidation as they fight to protect themselves from the calamity of building more nuclear plants deserves to be quoted at some length:

“The day after the Tamil Nadu state by-elections last March… Chief Minister Selvi J. Jayalalithaa suddenly reversed her earlier decision to support the protesters, dispatching at least 6,000 police and paramilitary to the region. For three days, the government prevented essential supplies — including tankers of water and milk — from reaching the PMANE base in Idinthikarai, a coastal village about two kilometers from the Koodankulam reactors. But nearby fishing communities sympathized with the protesters at Idinthikarai and sent in boats of supplies for them. In an unprecedented display of solidarity, traditional local women also took to boats to reach the village. Residents blocked roads en masse, preventing police from arresting the movement’s coordinators.”

This is the kind of heroic solidarity actions and mass movement we need to build in the United States and in every part of the globe.

But finally, if the system really is pathological in its operation, as I would argue it is, then the only solution is to uproot it in its entirety and replace it with something that we can jointly and collectively create; a social and economic system that places people and the planet before profit.

Ultimately, a system where there is no profit, where we cooperate to democratically plan out what we need to produce and how we’re going to produce it with, to use Marx’s words, the “least possible expenditure of energy.” The stepping stones along the path to that fundamental transformation require the building of a mass social and ecological justice movement that fights for real reforms as outlined above, beginning with the abandonment of the destructive and costly insanity of nuclear power and the eradication of fossil fuel derived energy that is destabilizing global climate. But a movement that simultaneously aims for a revolutionary reordering of power.

Power to the people, not the corporations!

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2010).  He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science.  He reported from Fukushima in December and January and is currently a Lannan writer-in-residence in Marfa, Texas.