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The Nuclear Challenge (6): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Fukushima and Beyond

30 Aug


The terrifying nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 associated with the reactor meltdowns, hydrogen explosion, and release of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex was an anguishing complement to the awful collective memories of the Japanese people arising from the atomic attacks seven decades ago. We can only wonder about the lingering effects on the Japanese national psyche of being twice so severely victimized by the diabolical power of the atom?


Fukushima was an exemplary tragedy of this new century, exhibiting the destructive force of nature in lethal interaction with the Promethean embrace of nuclear technology, a gigantic earthquake causing oceanic fury in the form of a massive tsunami engulfing Fukushima and surrounding areas, and causing the terrible nuclear accident, with its long-lasting harmful effects. And it could have been worse. Had the winds been blowing in the direction of Tokyo as many as 30 million people would have been exposed to high density radiation, causing severe harm and immeasurably great anxieties as well as increasing the incidence of cancer, infant mortality, and genetic defects.


According to recent assessments, an estimated 2,000 persons died due to the disruptive effects of the accident among the 160,000 evacuated from Fukushima to avoid further exposure to the high radiation levels, occasioning an upsurge of suicides and a range of serious mental disorders, including many victims of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) and thyroid cancer, fears of contaminated food, and projections of 5,000 eventual fatal cancers. [For details see Ian Fairlie, “Fukushima: Thousands Have Already Died: Thousands More Will Die,” Counterpunch, August 20, 2015] The economic damage resulting from these events, including the lengthy and costly cleanup, are estimated at between $300 and $500 billion. There was also evidence that the management of Fukushima Daiichi, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) bears significant responsibility for what has been called a ‘human-induced catastrophe’ due to ‘regulatory capture’ (the Japanese government adopting the corporate outlook rather than protecting the public) that produced corruption, collusion, and nepotism, which undermined compliance with safety standards. Whether these failures were responsible for causing the disaster, or more plausibly, the inability to contain the damage, remains contested.


Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister in 2011 reacted to the Fukushima by opposing any further reliance on nuclear power to meet Japanese energy needs.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been the Soviet leader at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986, the only comparable event to Fukushima, also expressed his subsequent opposition to nuclear energy. Yet, the dominant official reactions in Japan are consistent with the presuppositions built into the political consciousness of modernity as shaped by neoliberal capitalism: no matter what, don’t depart from the path of capital efficiency; trust always in the self-corrective capacities of technology; and stress the social costs of alternatives, especially if small-scale, local, and capital non-intensive.


The current Japanese leadership under the conservative prime minister Shinzō Abe favors reopening nuclear plants in Japan, which had been shut down, as soon as they are approved as having adopted revised safety measures and procedures, and indeed announces plans to rely on nuclear power for 20-22% of the country’s energy needs by 2030. This policy is based on studies that conclude that nuclear power is cheaper than all other energy sources and ignores the opposition of the majority of the Japanese public to future reliance on nuclear power. As with decisions pertaining to nuclear weaponry, the determination of policy on nuclear power reflects the priorities of political and economic elites rather than the preferences of the affected society or the weight of morality and public opinion, not only in Japan, but worldwide, a gigantic gap in democratic political practice.


Prior to Fukushima there was a growing enthusiasm for nuclear power as a partial antidote to global warming. A widely publicized MIT/Harvard study in 2003 (“The Future of Nuclear Energy”) concluded that “the nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power.” This conclusion was reached after a decent interval had passed since the impact of the Chernobyl disaster, and memories of the American accident at Three Mile Island (1979) had faded, and supposedly improved safety procedures would were installed to ensure the avoidance of such future mishaps. Surrounding nuclear energy since its inception has been a variety of debates about whether the release of low-level radiation causes damage to human health. There are also serious economic and safety issues associated with the absence of any permanently reliable manner of disposing of nuclear waste, which has been accumulating over the years.


Further in the background is the linkage between the proclaimed benefits of nuclear energy as juxtaposed against the dangers associated with the existence of nuclear weapons. This distinction was central to the double bargain stuck in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970), as outlined in Article IV:

“1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.

  1. All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also co-operate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”


In effect, the deceptive double bargain is this as operative in 2015: first, all but the nine weapons states are expected to forego nuclear weapons in exchange for one broken promise (Article VI’s obligatory commitment to seek nuclear disarmament along with a more ambitious outreach to general demilitarization) and secondly, a snare and delusion (Article IV as the sorcerer’s apprentice dangerously luring governments to seek and enjoys the benefits of nuclear energy without any appreciation or recognition of its ominous dark sides). As the recent diplomacy with Iran has memorably illustrated, this supposedly unrestricted availability and accessibility of nuclear power is manipulated by geopolitical forces. The justificiation for this manipulationis the unavoidable connections between the energy side of the nuclear equation and the weapons side. What is more apparent, and contrary to the language of Article IV, is the discriminatory ways in which access to supposedly peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its technology has been implemented. Countries such as Germany and Japan have long had the technologies and stockpiles of enrichment that Iran is prohibited from possessing.


Against this background, it would seem that several conclusions follow:

–for Japan, already disproportionately victimized by the onset of the nuclear age, seems to be imprudently and immorally ignoring the opposition of its own citizenry, and planning a future increased reliance on nuclear technology to meet its energy needs;

–one way of signaling a serious intention to shift from the existing managerial approach to nuclear weapons and nuclear power would be to phase out reliance on nuclear energy as Germany did unilaterally at considerable cost in reaction to Fukushima on the basis of enlightened self-interest;

–there seems to be no way that deep nuclear disarmament can occur as a result of international diplomacy without a parallel process that involves phasing out the nuclear energy option for all countries;

–the Article IV approach in the NPT context misleadingly posits nuclear energy, and related technology transfer, as a partial reward for renouncing the right to acquire nuclear weaponry rather tempting non-nuclear states to accept an additional high risk burden;

–there can be no persuasive and durable normative distinction drawn between the permissibility of nuclear power and impermissibility of nuclear weaponry; a convincing moral, political, and legal repudiation of nuclearism should encompass both the weaponry and the energy dimensions of nuclear capabilities .