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“Fukushima” : Will a lethal disaster lead to the nuclear industries’ rising from the ashes ?

25 years after the reactor explosion at Chernobyl (Ukraine)

The ongoing nuclear disaster of last March 11 in Japan is the gravest one since the reactor explo­sion at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. Its destructive potential is even greater because, at the Fukushi­ma Daiichi plant as a whole, a tenfold mass of radioactive fuel is involved. The Japanese govern­ment, nuc­lear authorities and the industry are feverishly engaged in bringing a catastrophe under control for whose occurrence they are largely responsible themselves. Despite international assist­ance the Ja­panese authorit­ies are left to improvise, which carries the risk to still worsen the disaster. Meanwhile the four ruined reactors continue to release radioactive fission products and ionizing ra­diation into the environment.

Never before in “peace time” a nuclear disaster of this extent has occurred in one of the most advanced countries of world capitalism. It notably strikes the technological Mecca of Japan, who exports nuclear tech­nology and constitutes an important market for it as well. It thwarts at an international level the policies of na­tional governments and in­dustries in the strategic energy sector.

According to official estimates the reactors will not be neutralized before next February. Until then a final dis­mantling of the installations is out of the question, as is a wholesale cleanup of the premises. The latter will take more than a decade to complete.

The discontent and anger amongst the population in Japan about the irresponsibility of the authorities and their failing response to the calamities that have hit the country, start to manifest themselves in growing street protests, like on June 11 in Tokyo and other cities in the country. [1] The population increasingly dis­trusts the au­thorities who have veiled and minimized the extent and the gravity of the nuclear cata­strophe and, by implication, the grave consequences for humans and the environment. It starts to put the “peaceful use” of nuclear technology as well as the government’s authority into question. The protests denounce the failing disaster response and the authorities’ responsibility for the nuclear disaster. The demand better emer­gency relief, compensation and a change of energy policy.

The real extent of the disaster is only gradually coming to surface, and may become another issue of dis­pute for years to come. The “power company” Tepco and the Japanese state are certainly not the first ones to pre­tend their noses are bleeding over keeping silent and minimizing the extent of the nuclear disaster. The USA anticipated them in 1979 in the reactor accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), were authorities did not see any danger for public health, but simultaneously considered evacuation of about 140.000 inhabitants necessary. The much larger reactor explosion at Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986 has been kept silent by national and Russian authorities for more than a week, until a Swedish institute rang the alarm because of measurements of strongly increased radioactivity from eastern Europe.

Our solidarity is with the calamity stricken population who has started to resist, and with the workers and the emergency rescue services, who are forced to put their health and lives at risk, in order to prevent the catastrophe from getting worse.

Four months after the immense Tohoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, who have devastated a whole region in the north-east of the main island Honshu, the silence of the authorities about the real extent of the nuclear disaster is first and foremost thwarted through revelations and denunciations by experts, scientists, civil rights groups and environmental activists. [2] As the Chernobyl disaster shows, the biological and ecolo­gical damage will have effects for gen­erations to come in Japan as well.

With our modest possibilities we intend to follow the develop­ments of the ongoing catastrophe and to deepen on the burning questions that are posed for the Marxists and the Com­munist Left in particular in the Columns of Controversies. We call for a debate on these questions as broad and thorough as pos­sible.

Growing resistance against the irresponsibility of the authorities

The “Fukushima” disaster confronts the world’s population with the lethal dangers of the “peaceful use” of nuclear technology and the irresponsibility of the authorities in the world’s third largest economy. [3] 25 Years after “Chernobyl” the disaster in Japan puts the future of nuclear energy for primary power production into question once more. Efforts by the industries and national governments to speed up a worldwide “renais­sance” of nuclear power, as a so called “clean and cheap source of energy” and a presumably low CO2 al­ternative for the globally increasing use of fossil fuels, have become contested.

The most important powers of capitalism have all put their bets on an expansion of nuclear power in order to provide for their growing energy needs. They have paralleled this with a “policy” to extend the life time of ob­solete nuclear plants, in order to buy time for planning and development, putting out to con­tract, public hear­ings and for the construction of a new generation of reactors and... first and foremost, to neutralize resist­ances amongst the population. [4] Following the accident with one of the reactors at Three Mile Island (Har­risburg) in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster (Ukraine) in 1986, who both took place in the context of the cold war with its insane armaments race, the use of nuclear technology has caused so much resistance among the populations in the old centers of capitalism in the west, that industries and governments, with the USA and Ger­many in the front line, have had to freeze most of their expansion plans for more than 2 dec­ades. In addition, the weight of the economic crisis dis-encouraged the huge long term capital invest­ments that are required for nuclear plants, but who attain doubt­ful return-of-investment prognoses. The large cam­paigns and controvers­ies on global warming and the “CO2 – issue” in the past decade finally ap­peared to have created a more favor­able “climate” for a large scale acceptance of nuclear power, and an industry that had infes­ted itself with a “green” and “sustainable” image. The catastrophe at the Fukushima-1 plant has let this policy of “biding our time” ex­plode in their faces.

In several countries protest movements among the population against the irresponsibility of state and indus­trial authorities, and against the continuation of the use of nuclear power, with its nu­merous un­solved prob­lems and dangers – like those of the final deposition of radioactive waste, have revived. Generally these move­ments demand the transition to more ‘sustainable’ power sources as a rational and safer alternat­ive, without putting the capitalist mode of production into question.

In Germany the disaster in Japan has propelled the Merkel government to complete a U-turn in its policy to extent the lifetime of obsolete reactors within a day. It immediately had 8 obsolete reactors put out of opera­tion, pending inspections and evaluations. It was a public secret that these reactors would not be reconnec­ted to the grid, even after inspections. Nonetheless, following massive demonstrations in 4 major German cit­ies on March 25. [5], the center-right government coalition parties CDU and FDP suffered major losses at three consecutive federal state elections to the opposition parties, mainly to the Greens. The national gov­ernment announced subsequently that all 17 nuclear power plants in Germany will be closed down within ten years. In the wake of this turnabout, strife has broken out within the German bourgeoisie about the ori­entation of its in­dustrial and energy policies, about the reliability of power generation from ‘sustain­able sources’ and the feas­ibility of constructing an infrastructure for its distribution ; about possible ‘solutions’ to the ever lasting issue of nuclear waste deposition ; about the trans­ition scenario, while claims against the state of Germany have been announced by big power utility companies. The Merkel govern­ment has en­gaged in an effort to establish a new ‘na­tional consensus on energy’, to which it wants to commit the op­position parties. Its return to the policies of its center-left predecessor of SPD and the Greens has become another controversial question about the orientation of Germany’s policies at the Washing­ton meeting between Merkel and Obama on June 7. [6]

After the turnabout of the German government the Swiss government announced a building stop for new re­actors. On June 13th the Berlusconi government in Italy suffered a defeat in a referendum about, among oth­ers, the question whether to allow the construction of new nuclear plants for the first time since 1987. This has been rejected by the great majority of the voters, who had turned out at sufficient rates as to reach the quorum.

In calamity stricken Japan resistance among the population against the cynical and life threatening manner in which the dominant class deals with its conditions, and with the consequences of the earthquake and the nuclear disaster. At the protest demonstrations on June 11 only in the capital Tokyo 20.000 have parti­cipated. This has expressed a considerable growth of the modest protest in a country in which it is not con­sidered de­cent to protest openly against the government. The demonstrators denounce the failing disaster manage­ment, and expose the responsibility of the authorities for the nuclear disaster. They demand better emer­gency relief, compensations and a review of energy policies.

It is significant to the loss of authority by the government that neither the spectacular announcement by PM Naoto Kan, at the beginning of May, to rebuild Japan’s energy policy “from scratch” and to provide for a lar­ger part of ‘renewable energy’, nor the latter’s call to stop two of the reactors at the Hamaoka plant (pending en­gineering works to protect them against a tsunami), have prevented the demonstrations from growing. The con­sensus among the Japanese to continue accepting the nuclear energy pathway, in spite of all its problems and dangers, erodes before our eyes. According to opinion polls a large majority of the Japanese population starts to refuse the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” for primary electricity generation. New massive demonstrations are planned for September.

Discontent and protest against continuation and expansion of nuclear energy does not only affect the crisis ridden traditional centers of capitalism, who have been confronted with the deepest economic crisis since 1929. In the growing economy of nuclear power India, in the region of Jaitapur, 400 km south of Bombay (Mumbai), the local population of peasants and fishermen resist for already four years plans of the national government at Delhi to built the world’s largest nuclear power plant. The latter wants a joint venture with the French compant Areva build six brand new EPR uranium reactors [7] with 1650 gigawatt electric power per unit. The local popu­lation fears its health, its way of life and the ecosystem that is the source of their means of existence being jeopardized, and has patiently and with great endurance come into resistance – suppor­ted by dissident military, nuclear scientists, sociologists and ecologists. [8]

These developments and social movements confront the powers that be with an increasing loss of credibility and authority among the population in these countries, as they put the policies for a strategical sector of the national economies into question. Moreover they show the actuality of old, fundamental questions for Marx­ism such as : the question of the relationship between man and nature, of the role of technology in the exploita­tion of both men and nature by capitalism, who transforms social productive forces into forces of de­struction ; the question of the alternatives to this, and their consequences for industry and energy policies in a society that breaks with the law of value. Last but not least the put the question back on the agenda of the at­titude of revolutionary minorities towards protest movements among the population, who express justified concerns and demands faced with the destructive effects of capitalist industrialism on public health and the environment ; movements that, often without success, try to come up against the irresponsibility of state and industrial authorities, who recklessly act in the service of private profits and of the exploitation of men and nature in favor of capital accumulation.

Jac. Johanson, July 23, 2011

Controversies, Forum for the Internationalist Communist Left

correction : note no. 3, december 2011

First statements by groups of the communist left
and by others who discuss with it :

[1Reuters, 11 June 2011 : Japan anti-nuclear protesters rally after quake ; The New York Times, 11 June 2011 : Protests in Japan Challenge Nuclear Power

[3China has run ahead of Japan in Brute Internal Product per capita in 2010, and thereby has attained the second place in the world’s ranking list, behind the USA.

[4The International Energy Outlook of July 2010 by the US Energy Information Administration sheds some light on the road taken by the nuclear industry : a bet on state policies to continue the use of older plants : “Electricity generation from nuclear power increases from about 2.6 trillion kilowatthours in 2007 to a projected 3.6 trillion kilowatthours in 2020 and then to 4.5 trillion kilowatthours in 2035. Higher future prices for fossil fuels make nuclear power economically competitive with generation from coal, natural gas, and liquid fuels, despite the relatively high capital costs of nuclear power plants. Moreover, higher capacity utilization rates have been reported for many existing nuclear facilities, and the projection anticipates that most of the older nuclear power plants in the OECD countries and non-OECD Eurasia will be granted extensions to their operating lives.”

[5On this day in four major cities (Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and Munich) about 250.000 took the streets to demand the arrest of the nuclear power plants and a change in energy policies. The most important opposition parties, SPD and Greens, the trades union leadership of DGB and the PDS/Die Linke went in front.

[6Other controversial questions have been the “euro-crisis” and the milita­ry operations in Libya.

[7EPR stands for European Pressurized Reactor, a new type of pressurized water reactor that has not been tested anywhere in the world. A first installation is being built in Finland, and attains records in exceeding building times and budgets.

[8Source : Le Monde Diplomatique no. 685, April 2011 : “Le projet d’Areva contesté en Inde – Atome contre biodiver­sité à Jaita­pur” (“Areva’s controversial project in India – Atom against biodiversity in Jaitapur”)