Tag Archives: nuclear energy

The Nuclear Challenge (10): Seventy Years After Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Against Binaries

10 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This is the tenth, and mercifully the last, in this series of posts prompted by the 70th observance of the atomic attacks in 1945. The intention has been to explore several of the more important dimensions of what is called here ‘nuclearism,’ the securitization of nuclear weaponry in the face of international law, international morality, and simple common sense, and what can and should be done to achieve desecuritization of such weaponry of mass destruction, reviewing the stubborn adherence to nuclearism by the nuclear nine, the marginalization of the UN with respect to disarmament and denuclearization, and the rise and fall of antinuclear activism in civil society. Hopefully, the time will come when a less gloomy depiction of the nuclear challenge can be made by some future blog practitioner. This text is a slightly revised version of what was initially posted, written in grateful response to comments received.]


There have been a variety of philosophical assaults on either/or thinking, perhaps most notably flowing from the deconstructionist pen of Jacques Derrida. In more policy related contexts, the debate about dichotomizing gender has featured two sets of arguments: first the contention that it is important to distinguish lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, hence the LGBT designation of sexual ‘otherness,’ which enriches the either/or-ness of the reigning male/female gender binary. Identifications of sexuality also cuts against the grain of the dominant heterosexual or straight template, and is further contested by ongoing debates surrounding the societal, legal, and conceptual legitimacy of ‘same sex marriages.’


The New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, pushes the sexual identity envelope further by developing the case for ‘fluidity’ of preferences, that is, neither purely this or that. He personalizes the issue, indicating that he generally is attracted to women, but on occasion might also be attracted to men, which because the feelings of attraction are greater for women than men, it is not accurate to define himself as ‘bisexual.’ Such a blurring of boundaries corresponds with the actuality of his feelings that even cut across supposedly liberating socially constructed categories as LGBT is meant to be. [Sept 7, 2015] The point being that the biopolitical reality of life often does not divide neatly into binary categories, and when we address the issue as one of upholding societal norms by enacting laws disciplining sexual limits, adverse social, political, and psychological self-alienation and arbitrary distinctions follow. This encroaches upon our freedoms in unfortunate, often unconscious, ways, leading many individuals to stay in the closet to hide their true feelings or be open and face subtle punitive consequences. Or, at best, individuals conclude that their failure to fit their feelings into a single box is somehow ‘abnormal.’ Relaxing traditional roles of state, church, and society in policing politically correct identities is one of the few areas in which freedom in American can be said to have expanded in the last couple of decades, and this, largely due to the transcendence of gender and sexual binaries thanks to robust civil society activism that cut against the grain of majority sentiment.



Perhaps, the most blatant of all binaries bearing on nuclear weapons is between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ nuclear weapons states, which immediately reminds us of Mahmood Mamdani’s devastating critique of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. [See Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (2005)] The United States and its allies regard themselves as ‘good’ nuclear weapons states that the world has no reason to worry about while Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are ‘evil,’ or at best ‘irresponsible’ or ‘insecure’ states that should if at all possible be disallowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It is this primary binary that provides the moral/political disguised infrastructure of NPT treaty regime, which when established was confined to the P5 of the UN Security Council, which while not conceived of as ‘good’ by the West were at least not part of ‘the axis of evil’ depicted by George W. Bush during his presidency.


In this series on the nuclear challenge as of 2015, I have myself succumbed to the ‘binary temptation’ in at least two respects—distinguishing arms control from disarmament, and separating nuclear disarmament from conventional disarmament. Relying on binaries can contribute to a certain clarity of analysis, leading I believe to useful political discourse, but it is also misleading unless qualified and transcended. Dichotomizing choice and consequences in these ways can be especially useful in pointing out weaknesses and pitfalls in ‘politically correct’ methods of solving societal problems. In this spirit, I continue to believe it is illuminating to insist on the critical difference between complete nuclear disarmament as transformative of the security scene as now embedded in world order and arms control as a series of more or less helpful reformist moves that stabilize and manage the role of nuclear weaponry in contemporary security structures. These arms control moves are made without posing any challenge to the fundamental distribution of power and authority in the world, and tend to make such a challenge appear less urgent, and even of questionable benefit.

From this perspective, then, a critique of the NPT regime as the preeminent stabilizing structure in relation to nuclearism seems justified. It provides the basis for setting forth an argument that the NPT approach is antagonistic, rather than complementary to denuclearization and disarmament. This is contrary to the way the NPT regime is generally explained and affirmed, which is as step toward achieving nuclear disarmament, and an indispensable place holding measure to reduce the risks of nuclear war. It is true that inhibiting the spread of nuclear weaponry seems to be in the spirit of what might be described as horizontal denuclearization, although even this limited assertion is not without controversy. The recently deceased Kenneth Waltz with impeccable logical consistency seemed to believe so deeply in rational decision making as embedded in the doctrine of deterrence that he favored the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries because it would tend to make governments more cautious, and hence nuclear war less likely. Others, including myself, are more ambivalent about such an out of the box position, worrying about any further spread of the bomb, but thinking that only when there is a sense of a loss of control in the capitals of the nuclear nine will there arise a sufficient interest in denuclearization as a genuine political project (as distinct from more or less sincere rhetorical posturing). Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 still seems sincere as of the time of its delivery, but we need to notice that it lived and died as rhetoric because it lacked legs, that is, the rhetoric was never converted into a political project. In contrast, the NPT is definitely a political project and enjoys strong geopolitical support.


The policy emphasis on horizontal denuclearization has the sometimes intended and sometimes unintended effect of shifting public attention away from the greater problematique of promoting vertical declearization, that is, inducing the nuclear weapons states to enter a diplomatic process that would finish with zero nuclear weapons in their military arsenals. Again such a distinction, while useful for some purposes, employs the artificial binary of horizontal and vertical, and misses the nuance actuality of hybridity and interactivity, or what Blow describes as ‘fluidity’ or others have been delimiting by dwelling on the fifty shades of gray positioned between the black and white of conventional thinking. Decuclearization for each of the nuclear nine raises different issues depending on the outlook of their leadership, the political context, and the ease of making alternative non-nuclear security arrangements, as well as their interaction with one another and with neighboring states.


Perhaps, the most salient false dichotomy of all is between ‘nuclear weapons states’ and ‘non-nuclear weapons states.’ When countries have the enrichment facilities and materials, as well as the technical knowhow, they possess a breakout capacity that could materialize in a matter of months, or maybe already exists as a result of a secret program (as was the case with Israel). Yet without acquiring and exploding a bomb such states retain their status as non-nuclear. Israel is treated as belonging to the nuclear nine because its possession of the weaponry has been documented convincingly, although it has never officially admitted its possession of the weaponry, and keeps vindictively punishing Mordechai Vanunu because he exposed the truth about Israel’s nuclear program. North Korea may not have assembled a bomb when it was charged with violating NPT constraints. Germany and Japan, and perhaps a few other countries, are latent or threshold nuclear states, although their overt posture is one of being ‘non-nuclear.’ The fluidity of reality makes the binary classification, at best, a first approximation. At worst, it creates a deceptive distance between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not presently possess the weaponry, but could do so in a short time. Or between those that pretend not to have the weapon but actually have it and those that pretend to have it but do not have it. The binary classification ignores the many differences with respect to nuclear weapons and doctrines surrounding use of the nuclear nine, but also the many nuances of technical and political proximity to nuclearism of non-nuclear states. Some states have allowed deployments of nuclear weapons on their territory, others have prohibited ships carrying nuclear weapons from entering their ports for even a short visit.



The situation becomes even more complicated if inquiry is extended to secondary political effects. It has been argued that vertical denuclearization undertaken by the United States would likely lead to horizontal nuclearization on the part of Japan and South Korea. Contrariwise, it is reasoned in strategic circles that the nuclearization of countries in Asia and the Middle East could induce vertical denuclearization on a systemic basis to avoid the instabilities and raised risks of a growing number of hands on the nuclear trigger, and to clear the way for regional securitization based on American conventional military dominance. Worries about continued proliferation combined with the realization that American military power would become more usable and effective in a world without nuclear weapons even led such realist mainstays as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn to support nuclear disarmament in the normally militarist pages of the Wall Street Journal. [“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 4, 2007.]


A similar line of reasoning applies to the relationship between nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament. Focusing on nuclear disarmament as a distinct undertaking avoids difficult issues of whether disarmament rests on a premise of pacifism and thus would be imprudent in view of centuries of political consciousness supporting the right and practical necessity of political communities acting in self-defense to uphold their security against external threats. This logic of a collective right to bear arms underlies the modern system of state-centric world order that conceives of security within bounded territorial entities as integrally linked to the war system.


At the same time, as discussed in relation to Gorbachev’s vision of nuclear disarmament discussed in The Nuclear Challenge (3), it is unrealistic to think of deep disarmament without introducing demilitarization into the process. Otherwise as Gorbachev points out, governments will be reluctant to take the last steps in a denuclearizing process if they understand that at the zero point for nuclear weapons, the world will be confronted by American military dominance, already prefigured by the U.S. government spending almost as much to maintain and develop its military machine as the entire rest of the world. For meaningful commentary it is necessary to view different types of disarmament as complements rather than as alternatives, and not to ignore different levels of interactivity. Although both Gorbachev and the Shultz group advocate nuclear disarmament, their geopolitical agendas are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Gorbachev seeks a demilitarized world of equally secure sovereign states whereas the Shultz group favors stabilizing American military hegemony.


One of the most frequently identified binary is that between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy or power. This binary is built into the NPT regime, giving non-nuclear states reassurances in Article IV that by foregoing the bomb they will not be denied the supposed benefits of nuclear energy, and that they can look forward to a denuclearized world as the nuclear weapons states accepted a legal duty to negotiate disarmament in Article VI. And then in Article X parties to the NPT are given a right to withdraw after giving three months notice in response to security imperatives, a right that can be overridden by the geopolitical insistence on non-acquisition of the weaponry as with Iran. The reality of the nuclear world subverts such a binary in a number of ways. If a nuclear energy program is established it creates conditions that makes it easier to cross the weapons threshold by having the capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium and the technical knowhow to produce a nuclear warhead. Also, the kind of nuclear accidents that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima suggest that nuclear facilities are nuclear time bombs awaiting an igniting natural disaster or human error. Such nuclear power plants are also could be a priority target for unscrupulous political extremists. These nuclear facilities pose unknown risks of devastation that could terrorize millions of people, and spread intense fear across the globe following the release of large amounts of intense radiation. Vagaries of air currents might determine whether communities become afflicted or not.


And then there are issues of geopolitical fallout stemming from managing the NPT regime. Instead of the NPT contributing to stability, its maintenance can provide the rationale for recourse to threats and uses of aggressive force. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was mainly justified as a NPT enforcement operation as was the imposition of damaging international sanctions on Iran coupled with frequent reiterations of the military option by American and Israeli leaders. In effect, the alleged need to prevent certain instances of unwanted proliferation is providing political actors, especially the United States, with geopolitical justifications for costly unlawful wars that displace millions and disrupt existing political arrangements. Characterizing nuclear energy as ‘peaceful’ does not seem compatible with the spirit or substance of a fully denuclearized world.


There is an even deeper divide that needs to be bridged conceptually and practically. Can drastic forms of demilitarization reliably occur without also addressing poverty and gross disparities of individual and collective existence? And can such socio-economic issues be resolved without a combination of life style adjustments and the dismantling of neoliberal capitalism as the ideological linchpin of economic globalization? And are any of these radical changes worth contemplating without the inclusion on the policy agenda of global warming and threats to biodiversity? And on and on.


What I favor, in effect, is retaining binaries to clear up basic choices that can be better understood without the complexities and subtleties of fluidity, but also moving toward a second level of interpretation that is immersed in the existential realities of the lifeworld. On this level, evaluation would be contextual and configurative, and not be pre-judged or appraised by reference to a reductive binary. From such angles, the NPT would be seen as both helpful and harmful, making its assessment change with time and context. The NPT may have, on balance, been a constructive step in 1968 when it was possible to believe that inhibiting proliferation would give nuclear disarmament time and space to establish a more favorable climate for negotiations. By way of comparison, in 2015 the world possesses overwhelming evidence suggesting the disinclination of the nuclear weapons states to consider disarmament as a serious policy option. Such an understanding may shift the balance sufficiently to make it now more constructive to repudiate, or at least challenge the NPT regime. Such an altered approach seems quite reasonable in light of the militarist and unlawful tactics of implementation employed to victimize the peoples of Iraq and Iran.


The question of how to think about nuclear issues is itself daunting, yet crucial. One way to go about it is the recognition of distinct discourses with some sensitivity to overlaps between binary and contextual or configurative forms of analysis as discussed above. Among the substantive discourses that seem particularly useful for the promotion of denuclearization and disarmament the following can be commended: international relations; geopolitics; international law; international morality; denuclearization; demilitarization; securitization. Obviously, the path to nuclear zero is long with many twists and turns, and where it will lead remains unknown. What is known is that the struggle for nuclear disarmament, denuclearization, and demilitarization bears heavily on the destinies of the human species, and we each have a responsibility to become a participant rather than a spectator.

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 .

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

15 Mar

Learning from Disaster? After Sendai

After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was in the West, especially the United States, a short triumphal moment, crediting American science and military prowess with bringing victory over Japan and the avoidance of what was anticipated at the time to be a long and bloody conquest of the Japanese homeland. This official narrative of the devastating attacks on these Japanese cities has been contested by numerous reputable historians who argued that Japan had conveyed its readiness to surrender well before the bombs had been dropped, that the U.S. Government needed to launch the attacks to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that it had this super-weapon at its disposal, and that the attacks would help establish American supremacy in the Pacific without any need to share power with Moscow. But whatever historical interpretation is believed, the horror and indecency of the attacks is beyond controversy. This use of atomic bombs against defenseless densely populated cities remains the greatest single act of state terror in human history, and had it been committed by the losers in World War II surely the perpetrators would have been held criminally accountable and the weaponry forever prohibited. But history gives the winners in big wars considerable latitude to shape the future according to their own wishes, sometimes for the better, often for the worse.

Not only were these two cities of little military significance devastated beyond recognition, but additionally, inhabitants in a wide surrounding area were exposed to lethal doses of radioactivity causing for decades death, disease, acute anxiety, and birth defects. Beyond this, it was clear that such a technology would change the face of war and power, and would either be eliminated from the planet or others than the United States would insist on possession of the weaponry, and in fact, the five permanent member of the UN Security Council became the first five states to develop and possess nuclear weapons, and in later years, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have developed nuclear warheads of their own. As well, the technology was constantly improved at great cost, allowing long-distance delivery of nuclear warheads by guided missiles and payloads hundreds times greater than those primitive bombs used against Japan.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were widespread expressions of concern about the future issued by political leaders and an array of moral authority figures.  Statesmen in the West talked about the necessity of nuclear disarmament as the only alternative to a future war that would destroy industrial civilization. Scientists and others in society spoke in apocalyptic terms about the future. It was a mood of ‘utopia or else,’ and ‘on the beach,’  a sense that unless a new form of governance emerged rapidly there would be no way to avoid a catastrophic future for the human species and for the earth itself.

But what happened? The bellicose realists prevailed, warning of the distrust of ‘the other,’ insisting that it would be ‘better to be dead than red,’ and that nothing fundamental changed, that as in the past, only a balance of power could prevent war and catastrophe. The new name for balance in the nuclear age was ‘deterrence,’ and it evolved into an innovative, yet dangerous, semi-cooperative security posture that was given the formal doctrinal label of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ This reality was more popularly, and sanely, known by its expressive acronym, MAD, or sometimes this reality was identified as ‘a balance of terror,’ both a precursor of 9/11 language and a reminded that states have always been the supreme terrorist actors.  The main form of learning that took place after the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to normalize the weaponry, banish the memories, hope for the best, and try to prevent other states from acquiring it. The same realists, perhaps most prominently, John Mearsheimer, have even gone so far as to give their thanks to nuclear weaponry as ‘keepers of the peace’ during the Cold War.  With some plausibility these nuclearists insisted that best explanation for why the Soviet Union-United States rivalry did not result in World War III was their shared fear of nuclear devastation.  Such nuclear complacency was again in evidence when in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a refusal to propose at that time the elimination of nuclear weaponry, and there were reliable reports that the U.S. Government actually used its diplomatic leverage to discourage any Russian disarmament initiatives that might expose the embarrassing extent of this post-deterrence, post-Cold War American attachment to nuclearism. This attachment has persisted, enjoys wide and deep bipartisan support in the United States, is shared with the leadership and citizenry of the other nuclear weapons states to varying degrees, and is joined at the hip to an anti-proliferation regime that hypocritically treats most states (Israel was a notable exception, and India a partial one) that aspire to have nuclear weapons of their own as criminal outlaws subject to military intervention. The counter-proliferation geopolitical regime has been superimposed upon the legal regime, and currently being used to threaten and coerce Iran in a manner that violates fundamental postulates of international law and the UN Charter.

Here is the lesson that applies to the present: the shock of the atomic attacks wears off in a few years, is unequivocally superseded by a restoration of normalcy surrounding the role of hard power whether nuclear or not. Because of evolving technology, this meant creating the conditions for repetition of the potential use of such weaponry at greater magnitudes of death and destruction. Such a pattern is accentuated, as here, if the subject-matter of disaster is clouded by the politics of the day that obscured the gross immorality and criminality of the historical use of the weapon, that ignored the fact that there are governmental forces associated with the military establishment that seek maximal hard power as an unconditional goal, and overlooked the extent to which these professional militarists are reinforced by paid cadres of scientists, defense intellectuals, and bureaucrats who build careers around the weaponry. This structure is, in turn, strongly reinforced in various ways by private sector profit-making opportunities, including a globally influential corporatized media. These conditions also apply with even less restraint across, undergirding the dirty business of international arms sales. At least with nuclear weapons the main political actors are much more prudent in their relations with one another than was the case in the pre-nuclear era of international relations, and have a shared and high priority incentive to keep the weaponry from falling into hostile hands.

We should also take account of the incredible ‘Faustian Bargain’ sold to the non-nuclear world: give up a nuclear weapons option and in exchange get an unlimited ‘pass’ to the ‘benefits’ of nuclear energy, and besides, the nuclear weapons states, while furtively winking to one another when negotiating the notorious Nonproliferation Treaty (1963) promised in good faith to pursue nuclear disarmament, and indeed general and complete disarmament. Of course, the bad half of the bargain has been fulfilled, although selectively, even in the face of the dire experiences of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), while the good half of the bargain (getting rid of the weaponry) never gave rise to even halfhearted nuclear disarmament proposals and negotiations (and instead the world settled irresponsibly for managerial fixes from time to time, negotiated arrangements known as ‘arms control’ measures that were designed to stabilize the nuclear rivalry of the U.S. and Soviet Union (now Russia) in mutually beneficial ways relating to financial burdens and risks. Such a contention has been recently confirmed by the presidential commitment to devote an additional $80 billion for the development of nuclear weapons before the U.S.  Senate could be persuaded to ratify the New START Treaty in late 2010, the latest arms control ruse that was falsely promoted by Washington as a step toward disarmament and denuclearization. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with arms control, it may usefully reduce risks and costs under certain circumstances, but it is definitely not disarmament, and should not presented as if it is.

It is with this background in mind that the unfolding Japanese multidimensional mega-tragedy must be understood and its effects on future policy discussed in a preliminary manner. This extraordinary disaster originated in a natural event that was itself beyond human reckoning and control. An earthquake of unimaginable fury, measuring an unprecedented 9.0 on the Richter Scale, unleashing a deadly tsunami that reached a height of 30 feet, and swept inland in the Sendai area of northern Japan to an incredible distance up to 6 kilometers. It is still too early to count finally the number of the dead, the injured, the property damage, and the overall human costs, but we know enough by now to realize that the impact is already colossal, and will continue to grow, that this is a terrible happening that will be permanently seared into the collective imagination of humanity, perhaps the more so, because it is the most visually recorded epic occurrence in all of history, with real time video recordings of its catastrophic  ‘moments of truth’ and sensationalist media reportage, especially via TV.

But this natural disaster that has been responsible for massive human suffering has been compounded by its nuclear dimension, the full measure of which remains uncertain at this point, although generating a deepening foreboding that is perhaps magnified by calming reassurances by the corporate managers of nuclear power in Japan (Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO) who already had many blemishes on their safety record, as well as by political leaders, including Prime Minister Naoto Kan who understandably wants to avoid causing the Japanese public to shift from its impressive posture of traumatized, yet composed, witnessing to one of outright panic. There is also a lack of credibility based, especially, on a long record of false reassurances and cover ups by the Japanese nuclear industry, hiding and minimizing the effects of a 2007 earthquake in Japan, and actually lying about the extent of damage to a reactor at that time and on other occasions. What we need to understand is that the vulnerabilities of modern industrial society accentuate vulnerabilities that arise from extreme events in nature. There is no doubt that the huge earthquake/tsunami constellation of forces was responsible for great damage and societal distress, but the overall impact has been geometrically increased by this buying into the Faustian Bargain of nuclear energy, whose risks, if objectively assessed, were widely known for many years, yet effectively put to one side. It is the greedy profit-seekers, who minimize and suppress these risks, whether in the Gulf of Mexico or Fukushima or on Wall Street, and then scurry madly at the time of disaster to shift responsibilities to the victims that make me tremble as I contemplate the human future. These predatory forces are made more formidable because they have cajoled most politicians into complicity and have many allies in the media that overwhelm the publics of the world with steady doses of misinformation and tranquilizing promises of greater future care and protestations of societal need.

The reality of current nuclear dangers in Japan are far stronger than these words of reassurance that claim the risks to health are minimal because the radioactivity can even now be contained to avoid dangerous levels of contamination, although the latest reports indicate that already in nearby regions milk and spinach have tested as containing radiation above safe levels. A more trustworthy measure of the perceived rising dangers can be gathered from the continual official expansions of the evacuation zone around the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors from 3 km to 10 km, and more recently to 18 km, and more, coupled with the instructions to everyone caught in the region to stay indoors indefinitely, with windows and doors sealed. We can hope and pray that the four explosions that have so far taken place in the Fukushima Daiichi complex of reactors will not lead to further explosions or fires, and that a full meltdown in one or more of the reactors will not occur. Even without a meltdown the near certain venting of highly toxic radioactive steam to prevent unmanageable pressure from building up due to the boiling water in the reactor cores and spent fuel rods is likely to spread risks and harmful effects.  It is a policy dilemma that has become a living nightmare: either allow the heat to rise and confront the high probability of reactor meltdowns or vent the steam and subject large numbers of persons in the vicinity and beyond to radioactivity, especially should the wind shift southwards carrying the steam toward Tokyo or westward toward northern Japan or Korea.  In reactors 1, 2, and 3 are at risk of meltdowns, while with the shutdown reactors 4,5, and 6 pose the threat of fire releasing radioactive steam from the spent fuel rods.

We know that throughout Asia alone some 500 new reactors are either being built or have been planned and approved in the pre-Fukushima mood of energy worries, with as many as 150 destined for China alone. We know that nuclear power has been touted in the last several years as a major source of energy that is needed to deal with future energy requirements, a way of overcoming the challenge of ‘peak oil’ and of combating global warming by some decrease in carbon emissions. We know that the nuclear industry will contend that it knows how to build safe reactors in the future that will withstand even such ‘impossible’ events that have wrought such havoc in the Sendai region of Japan, while at the same time lobbying for insurance schemes to avoid such risks. Some critics of nuclear energy facilities in Japan and elsewhere had warned that these Fukushima reactors some built more than 40 years ago had become accident-prone and should no longer have been kept operational. Similar reactors are still operating around the world, including in the United States, with several near earthquake zones and close to large cities.And we know that governments will be under great pressure to renew the Faustian Bargain despite what should have been clear from the moment the bombs fell in 1945: This technology is far too unforgiving and lethal to be managed safely over time by human institutions, even if they were operated responsibly, which they are not. It is folly to persist, but it is foolhardy to expect the elites of the world to change course, despite this dramatic delivery of vivid reminders of human fallibility and culpability. We cannot hope to control the savageries of nature, although even these are being intensified by our refusal to take responsible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we can, if the will existed, learn to live within prudent limits even if this comes to mean a less materially abundant and an altered and less consumerist life style. The failure to take seriously the precautionary principle as a guide to social planning is a gathering dark cloud menacing all of our futures. Some specialists, including Amory Lovins and Jeremy Rifkin have argued that a blend of conservation, energy efficiency, and safe energy sources would satisfy the energy cravings of modern society without life style adjustments. Others, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, advocate the development of new major energy sources, in his case, deep geothermal drilling to tap into the heated core deep below the surface of the earth. [Globe and Mail, March 17, 2011, Canada]

Let us fervently hope that this Sendai disaster will not take further turns for the worse, but that the warnings already embedded in such happenings, will awaken enough people to the dangers on this path of hyper-modernity so that a politics of limits can arise to challenge the prevailing politics of limitless growth and consumerist profligacy. Such a challenge must include the repudiation of a neoliberal worldview, insisting without compromise on an economics and a human-centered vision of development based on needs and people rather than on profit margins, capital efficiency, and macro-economic indicators. Advocacy of such a course is admittedly a long shot, but so is the deadly collectivized utopian realism of staying on the nuclear course, whether it be with weapons or reactors. This is what Sendai should teach all of us!  But will it?

III..15…2011 (updated III..20…2011)