Our condolences go to the Japanese people, whose death toll from so-called “natural” and unnatural disasters will undoubtedly climb to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. On March 11, Japan suffered the largest earthquake in its history, followed by a tsunami along the northeast coast that swallowed up entire towns. Now survivors in the worst-hit area face probable radiation poisoning from a nuclear energy plant on the coast that was destroyed by the quake and water.
The survivors—and the whole country, and the whole world—must wait to see how much injury and death result from the radiation being released by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. As we write this on March 16, fires, explosions, and probably partial meltdowns have occurred or will occur in four reactors, causing the release of radioactivity into the air. A small band of brave workers remain in the plant, trying to cool and contain the radioactive materials. The city has been evacuated in a radius of 12 miles around the plant, while American soldiers stationed in Japan and helping with search and recovery operations have been ordered to remain 50 miles away. The population of the city of Sendai has been told to stay indoors so as to minimize exposure to radiation. And there has just been an announcement that a second nuclear facility south of Fukushima now has a radiation leak too. How many people will in the end be poisoned depends on how high the radiation levels go and how long exposure lasts, which depends in part on the wind and weather.
This man-made radiation disaster may persist for months or years. Effects on cancer rates are still being seen near the site of the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine which, in 1986, experienced the worst accident in the history of nuclear energy (see also “Chernobyl 25 Years Later Becomes Japan’s Lesson on Meltdown”). And death and destruction from earthquakes and tsunamis will continue as long as the world constructs cities and buildings so as to make them vulnerable to natural dangers.
The current radiation nightmare cannot fail to remind everyone of the holocaust unleashed on Japan during World War II, when the U.S. dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It boggles the mind that Japan allowed the construction of nuclear plants in spite of those memories, especially in a country that is earthquake-prone. And if you are going to build nuclear facilities, why in a large city, and why on the coast? Reports say that the earthquake caused the reactors to shut down but would not have caused danger if the reactors’ cores and spent rods could have been kept cool. This was impossible because all three of the facility’s cooling systems, which survived the quake, were knocked out of operation by the tsunami.
Earthquakes can occur anywhere, and accidents can occur for many reasons. In the U.S., people are suddenly more worried about nuclear facilities than they have been since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the worst in U.S. history. People in New York City have been worried about the facility near them ever since the 9/11 attacks: what would happen if a plane crashed into it? In Germany yesterday, anti-nuclear protestors demanded that their plants be closed.
U.S. nuclear power plants provide some 20% of the country’s electricity, and there are currently 104 reactors licensed for operation. According to an article in the New York Times on March 13, “… most of the nuclear plants in the United States share some or all of the risk factors that played a role at Fukushima Daiichi: locations on tsunami-prone coastlines or near earthquake faults, aging plants and backup electrical systems that rely on diesel generators and batteries that could fail in extreme circumstances.”
We don’t know whether nuclear plants can be built to be fail-safe, but we don’t trust capitalism to do so even if they can be. The one certainty is that in a capitalist economy, enterprises will always cut costs, which includes minimizing safety, in order to increase profits. Just look at the continual loss of life in mining disasters all over the world, in spite of the availability of fairly simple technology that can prevent them. And state-capitalism like they had in the Soviet Union operated in just the same way as private capitalism; during the accident at Chernobyl, it even refused to release information about the radiation that blew far beyond its borders. The issue is not private or public enterprise, but a world-wide system that nurtures capital’s self-expansion instead of nurturing people.
The same drive to expand capital prevents those in power from building and planning in ways that lessen the unnatural effects of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Right now, the Japanese government cannot even estimate how high the death toll may climb from the earthquake and tsunami because it doesn’t know how many people are missing—and “missing” probably means buried under rubble or washed out to sea. With communications down and whole families and towns wiped out, all of the missing people may never be reported. But one need only to glance at the horrendous videos of the earthquake and the tsunami when it made landfall to know that the people caught up in them are dead.
In the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, tens of thousands died. In the tsunami that struck twelve countries around the Indian Ocean in December 2004, more than 230,000 died, two-thirds of them in Acheh, Indonesia. Japan surely reduced the number who might have died from the earthquake by having relatively stringent building codes, much better than those in Haiti and the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. But Japan also has bigger, denser cities with higher buildings, so the buildings that did collapse killed the people in and near them. Japan also has a tsunami warning system, but it is not clear that everyone near the coast could hear the warnings, and not everyone was able to get to high ground. Additionally, Japan had built sea walls; reports are that they all failed. Sound like the New Orleans levies during Hurricane Katrina?
We are not surprised that prevailing assumptions about appropriate building codes and city planning endanger the lives of workers and the poor. That also is part and parcel of capitalism. In less industrialized areas like Acheh, the dead were poor people who lived and worked near the water: fishermen, farmers, villagers. Industrial degradation of the shore line was also a factor in the destruction, as it was in Louisiana. In Haiti, the death toll from the earthquake was exacerbated by extremely overcrowded conditions in Port-au-Prince, where more and more poor people have come to live because government policy (backed by the U.S. and multinational corporations) drove farmers off the land.
We have a better idea of how to achieve safety from natural disasters like tsunamis in the human-based world which we dream about: don’t build along the ocean. Especially not nuclear plants, but don’t build homes or industrial facilities there either. Enjoy trips to the beach but have really good tsunami warning systems and escape routes everywhere.
Well, there is no limit to what we can dream of. That is why we are working to see capitalism overthrown and a new basis for work and life begun. For the moment, we are glad that the nuclear industry will likely suffer a setback in growth as a result of the Japanese disaster. But we are sad that Japan’s people will continue to suffer from these blows and the blow to its economy.
Unfortunately, we can be sure that currently plummeting stock prices caused in part by these disasters will not bring down capitalism. Only working people can do that, when they say: enough! We’ve had our minds numbed and our bodies broken for too long! It’s time to re-create society on human grounds!