The plates into which the Earth’s crust is divided are in constant motion. Tensions that extend for hundreds of kilometres thus accumulate along their edges, corresponding with the fault lines which mark their boundaries. When this elastic energy encounters a fault, it is released in an earthquake. Due to stresses arising from mutual compression, one plate is pushed under the other producing the phenomenon known as subduction: the plate on which Japan sits is sliding over the Pacific Plate.
The Archipelago is situated in the so-called “Ring of Fire”, the 40 thousand kilometre strip surrounding that ocean and which includes numerous oceanic trenches and volcanic mountain chains, in particular where four of the plates collide. It is a zone in which the risk of seismic activity and tsunamis is extremely high: in fact around 80% of the earthquakes that occur are generated within this area, and it has always been known to be extremely dangerous.
Japan experienced two extremely large earthquakes in the last century alone: the first one, on September 1st, 1923, was of a 7.9 and 8.4 magnitude and struck the Kanto plain, the main island of Honshu and had its epicentre in Sagami bay. The quake lasted ten minutes and destroyed Tokyo, the port of Yokohama and the cities of Chiba, Kanagawa and Shizuoka and the entire Kanto region. The death toll was 177,000 dead. The devastating fire which followed the quake reduced entire cities to ashes. The second major earthquake, which occurred on the morning of 17 January 1995, was in Kobe, and registered 6.9 on the Richter Scale and caused 6,434 deaths. The destruction of buildings was immense with more than 100, 000 buildings raised to the ground and half a million damaged. Even in the last two years there have been 5 or 6 earthquakes registering over 6 degrees on the scale.
Already in 2007 an earthquake had damaged the Kashiwasaki-Kariwa nuclear power station and radioactive nuclei were released, although the amount and precisely what happened has never been communicated. On March 9 this year an earthquake of 7.9 was registered in the North of the country, with its epicentre 32 kilometers beneath the Pacific ocean floor and 130 kilometres off the north coast of the island of Honshu. The Japanese Metereological Office issued a seaquake alarm, then retracted it. Two days later, on March 11, one of the biggest seismic episodes ever registered, lasting two minutes, took place. The epicentre was beneath the ocean floor and around 120 kilometres off the North-east coast of Japan. The sudden displacement of the ocean floor provoked a tsunami, a gigantic wave 15 meters high which crashed down on the coastal region and caused massive devastation.
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In Japan’s not so recent past the problem of constructing houses capable of resisting seismic shocks was resolved by using wood, a material which is highly resistant relative to its mass and has an excellent elastic response, which allows for effective joinery within the main framework. Capitalism, having destroyed most of the forests on the planet, has resorted to materials that are less costly and require less – and less skilled – labour, namely reinforced concrete, which can be used to construct multi-story buildings, which is a requisite of landowning-bourgeois society in order to better compensate for, and divide up, the ground rent, but which, being a heavy material, doesn’t respond well to accelerations. Also, it isn’t technically impossible to construct buildings resistant to earthquakes with reinforced concrete, or better still with steel. And that has been demonstrated, it used to be said, precisely by Japanese capitalism, which, after the lessons learnt in 1923, as distinct from in Europe and America, set about building infrastructures and houses, even skyscrapers, of a size and shape capable of resisting earth tremors. Maybe that was true for a few decades, during the period of the powerful ascent of the youthful capitalism of the Rising Sun. By the time of the earthquake in 1995, however, that cycle had come to an end and the myth was exposed.
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But this time round it was the tsunami rather than the earthquake which produced most of the victims; an estimated ten thousand dead and half a million homeless. Clear evidence of capitalism’s incapacity to rationally distribute human settlement over the planet’s surface, as if more was needed, are the centres of habitation situated on the edges of the Pacific Ocean. The indubitable forecast that it was only a matter of time before a powerful seaquake would impact on those shores didn’t stop cities like Sendai and many smaller ones from being crammed into the narrow valley floors open to the sea and barely above sea-level themselves; and which it was well known the wave was bound to sweep away within the next generation. Building a bit higher up, or further back, would have been enough, with just the crucial maritime and port facilities, and the warehousing, left further down and on the seafront.
But capitalism prevents that, because it is always guided by the immediate rate of profit. Due to the law of natural selection, or rather, of capitalist nature, the capitalist who doesn’t continually aim for the maximum rate of profit, by any means, and whatever the consequences for the future, goes under. To have built an adequate distance from the waters’ edge, or a few metres higher, would have increased costs; the costs of transporting materials and of labour. A very small difference, and certainly infinitely less trouble than all the suffering produced by the cataclysm, and the hard slog of rebuilding it all, but it is only the here and now which ever counts, and that still minimum difference in costs which, in the present economic recession in particular, determines the survival of one capital and the demise of another. This is the key to the understanding of all town-planning, or rather, of its absence.
Not yes or no to nuclear power, but yes or no to capitalism
We have our say on the matter, as synthesised in the above heading.
The production of energy by means of atomic fission is based on the property of the uranium 235 nucleus – an isotope of the normal uranium 238 present in nature, constituting about 0.7% of the total – which, when hit by another neutron, spontaneously divides into one atom of barium 144, one of Krypton 89 and three other neutrons. In this reaction around one per cent of the mass is lost and transformed into energy as light and heat. If the newly emitted neutrons collide with the nucleus of another atom of uranium 235 a chain reaction results, and there is no further need to provide any further external neutrons because the production of energy is spontaneously maintained. In order to contain or shut down the process as far as possible, it is necessary to prevent the neutrons emitted from colliding with other atoms. This can be achieved by interposing a material between the uranium rods which absorbs the neutrons, such as graphite for example. The reaction is the same one used in the bomb which on 6 August 1945 was dropped and exploded 500 metres above Hiroshima. Three days later, over Nagasaki, they tried out another one, based on a different type of nuclear reaction containing plutonium 239. As is well known, the resulting deaths were of the order of hundreds of thousands.
After the war ended, the use of nuclear reactions to produce electrical energy proved to be relatively simple, and all of the different types of nuclear reactor which have been proposed since, including those in the planning stages today, have shown few significant variations or improvements. The so-called ‘fuel’, that is, the rods of uranium 235, are inserted into a tank of water; the pressure of the vapour which is produced drives a turbine, which turns an alternator; the vapour, using water from a lake or from the sea, is then cooled down, transforming it back into the liquid state before it flows back into the tank. The inconvenient side of the production of nuclear energy is that the basic reaction doesn’t just stop at barium and krypton, but continues, producing a series of other elements in various proportions, some of which in their turn are radioactive. Out of these some have only a very ephemeral life, but others only lose their radioactivity after a very long time; and not on the minimum scale of capitalism but even with respect to the life of our planet. Of these the ones which particularly endanger the health of animal species are: iodine 131, with a radioactive half-life of 8 days; caesium 137 and strontium 90, with half-lives of 30 years; and plutonium 239, which remains radioactive practically for ever. If a crack should appear in a tank or, worse still, a tank shatters following an explosion, as happened at Chernobyl when the graphite caught fire, these poisons are released into the atmosphere and into the rivers and oceans. Further heating produces a fusion of the rods of uranium and plutonium which, having penetrated the containment vessel, contaminate the surrounding area.
Another unknown with serious repercussions is how to store the ‘waste’ safely, some of which will always be radioactive and presents a danger to life. The problem is facilitated by the relatively small amount of material that needs to be stored, which is around 3 cubic metres per reactor per year, and yet the fact is that no country has yet come up with an appropriate storage facility or a definitive set of procedures: for fifty years now the containers of radioactive waste have been languishing in provisional warehouses awaiting a solution. On the other side it has been observed, with respect to reliance on the fossil fuels, coal, oil and methane – the resources of the latter two having been thoughtlessly squandered by capitalism over the last century – that nuclear power on the one hand uses cheaper materials, which are abundant and easily extractable, and on the other it doesn’t produce CO2, whose presence in the atmosphere is claimed to be modifying the climate. Evidently, due to the huge interests which loom over it (oil, industrial, etcetera) it is highly unlikely that capitalism will ever reach an understanding of the climate’s delicate and complex dynamics – in which phenomena of very short duration are superimposed on those which are much longer – let alone of the real dimension of the changes taking place; and we certainly rule out that it could ever modify the course of the climate, or indeed be inclined to do so, even if only to mitigate the effects on it of its congenital anarchy and improvidence.
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These then are the technical foundations, summed up very briefly, on which the production of nuclear energy is based, and around which a useless debate is taking place between its supporters and its adversaries. And why we say it is useless is because we know it will be Almighty Capital that will decide, in an unholy compromise with the various industrial lobbies, in a tangle of company, geopolitical and strategic interests that determine the different stances; conditioned also by factors of a military order. But the criterion that will eventually predominate is minimum cost. This is the dogma which all the contenders feel obliged to address, with the ‘ecologists’ in particular going to great lengths to demonstrate that nuclear energy doesn’t cost less. An example: a reactor project exists at CERN, named after the physicist Carlo Rubbia, which uses thorium instead of uranium. Its advantage is that it tackles the problem of the reaction ‘running away’ (in other words if anything went wrong, the reaction would stop and the reactor would cool down). Also, less long-lived radioactive residue is produced. It has one defect: it costs more and we can’t have that. Capitalist society is society on the cheap!
The historical merit of capitalism is that it enormously reduced the costs of goods, in terms of the hours it takes to produce them. To barely heat a room in winter you used to have to gather wood all year round. Two centuries later – during which time, in order to reduce costs, which at the level of the individual business means to increase profits, capitalism has destroyed everything it could destroy – capitalism now produces too much of everything, energy included.
Energy is a commodity, which has a value and a market. The producers of energy are all competing amongst themselves, like all the other sectors and, like them, those who sell at the cheapest price prevail. Any other consideration in this society is either due to naivety or bad faith. As far as energy is concerned, there is too much being produced: there isn’t a lack of energy, just a lack of it at a certain price. The reality is that the productive capacity of the power stations, in almost ever country and certainly on a global scale, is much greater than what is required; there wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for Capital. Under communism, the first truly human society to emerge from prehistory, the constant striving to reduce the cost per unit of production ceases. Instead it becomes a matter of looking for the best solution, and the amount of labour time required will only be one factor of minor importance in determining what solution is opted for. Once the production of useless items and the general wastefulness of capitalism has been reduced, including of surplus power, the labour time spent in the production of what is essential for human needs, which even now is barely a couple of hours a day, would be much reduced, with the rest of society’s energy expended in the pursuit of its remaining interests, which will be carried out spontaneously and freely, and without charge, and be expressed in different modes and styles, precisely in order so we can seek together, as a collective, the best solutions, in all senses, for the living and yet to be born, and, in general, for all forms of life in the world-universe.
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Coming back to Japan, the damaged reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant are, on the contrary, proof of capitalism’s criminal and blinkered way of going about things, even in one of its most evolved and mature societies. In fact, we will go so far as to say that the two things don’t run counter to each other, but rather in parallel: the more science and technology there is, the greater is the disdain for any proper forecasting, proper construction and proper maintenance. The primary aim of bourgeois technology and science is the reduction of costs: the best technology to provide the worst product. Most of what happened at Fukushima is a State, and class, secret, and, like in a war, information is filtered. The war, within every country, between capital and the working class: capital’s dictatorship.
On the other hand the essential facts are not difficult to discern. If there is one place in the world where a critically important and vulnerable installation like a nuclear power station should not be placed, it is in an area of major seismic activity: within these regions today we find 12 nuclear installations in Japan, 3 in Taiwan, 1 in China, 1 in Pakistan, 1 in Iran and 2 in California. On top of that Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with an average density of 340 people per square kilometre. In the present postwar period, Japanese capitalism was able to become the third world power, only recently overtaken by the Chinese. Since it is able to produce only 16% of its energy requirements from internal sources, Japan has become the largest importer in the world of liquefied natural gas and coal, and the third largest of oil. For that reason the Japanese bourgeoisie has sought with nuclear energy to reduce its energy dependence.
And here we see coming into play the anti-historical division of the world into nations, consequence and limit of capitalism, in which each one of them, all of them the enemy of ever other, must fend for itself. But the radioactive iodine emitted into the ocean from Fukushima won’t be stopped at passport control.
But not building close to the built up areas, unlike the case today, would involve the energy having to be transmitted over long distances, causing, they say, too much energy leak. In the meantime, having freed ourselves of monetary calculations, we could just use hydrogen, the fundamental element, and produce it in a big power station in the desert, transmitting it to wherever it was needed.
We don’t know what condition the Fukushima installation was in, or about its maintenance regime, but we do know it was built in 1970, and that the relevant authorities in the country had decided to close it some time ago. In Japan, over the next decade, 18 reactors, including 5 at Fukushima, will have reached 40 years old. This is considered the maximum life expectancy for these structures although some claim they are dangerous well before that. In any case, despite the laws which decide their maximum safe life span, the various governments, faced with the expenses involved in constructing new reactors, authorise extensions to this period despite the risks involved. In Japan, and elsewhere, those reaping the benefit of this policy are the producers of electricity: it is entirely in the interest of the companies managing these plants to extend their life; already amortized, they produce only profit, and the enormous costs of dismantling them are postponed too.
At Fukushima, the earth tremors dislodged the bars of graphite, but, given an electrical failure, which should certainly have been predicted, the pumps circulating the water shut down, which were still necessary to disperse externally the heat from the residual reaction. Even the emergency back up system, powered by a separate generator, failed to kick in. No other cooling apparatus was in place. A simple radiator circuit would have sufficed; installed at other installations, this functions passively, and actually utilises the same nuclear thermal energy. Or else a gravity duct drawing on a reservoir in the hills. At this point all the technicians could do was to get out, and the two youngest ones, who stayed behind to try and head off a disaster, paid with their lives. Both of the power stations in Fukushima, only eleven kilometres apart, suffered similar damage and analogous problems with their cooling systems, and to more than one of their reactors, which confirms the non-casualness of the event.
Even the company which manages the plant has admitted the situation is out of control. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that water had to be sprayed onto the reactors from a distance using hosepipes, and dropped from helicopters, to contain the fusion of the uranium rods; and to prevent an explosion due to the hydrogen and oxygen produced by the disassociation of water at high temperatures, with a consequent rupture of the reactor casing.
In addition there were the plutonium rich exhausted fuel rods in the storage tanks, and in one of the reactors the so-called MOX, a mixture of plutonium and uranium, ‘caught fire’. The water being used as a coolant coming in from the outside, and the water escaping from the primary circuit which contained radioactive elements, gathered in the tanks and the security channels. From here it leaked into the sea which is right next to the plant. As of now the entire population within a 20 kilometre radius has been evacuated, and for the people living in the next 10 kilometre band, they have been told to stay in their homes and caulk all windows and doors. Then it was if, from on high, the spirits of the ancestors stepped in, and started blowing the wind back out towards the ocean, channelling the radioactive cargo, not unreasonably, in the direction of the American aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan, which then immediately put about. Beyond this radius, if we are to believe the official reassurances, the contamination from the radioactive elements in the air isn’t that serious, compared to the explosions in the reactors and the leaking of the valves. What is certain however is that the entire plant, and a significant area around it will become forbidden terrain, and certainly the sea has been seriously contaminated, with consequences which no one can predict on marine life and on the economy, and on the diet of the Japanese and the peoples of the Western Pacific.
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Of course, we won’t be able to settle the question of ‘nuclear power – yes or no’. That is a task which can only be tackled, maybe even as soon as the next generation, once this putrid system of production has been swept away. Then it will be possible to decide whether to utilise nuclear power or not. Or even decide not to decide, closing down, as far as possible, the existing nuclear power stations and, given the uncertainty, undertaking further research.
If the prehistory of the human species begins with the discovery of fire, which distinguishes it from other animals, its true entrance into history, and its full unfolding under communism, might be marked by its mastery of another, higher force, the one which illuminates the sun and the stars.
But the utilisation by mankind of fission, and tomorrow of nuclear fusion, makes communism not just a requirement but an absolute necessity. Only then will it be possible to conceive a unique plan of production and distribution, which, insofar as it relates to energy, would involve planning and running power stations in a way that isn’t guiltily insecure. We can also forecast that for the first few decades many of the existing power stations will just be closed down, because most of the useless commodities which are vomited out by capitalism today will no longer be required, and the rational distribution of products will bring about a drastic reduction in transportation. We also predict that a lot more time and effort will be expended on the construction of homes, which will no longer have to be done on the cheap, and all due care and attention will be given to the requirement of efficient energy distribution. All of this will lead to a reduction in the demand for energy.
There is no solution, on the other hand, for today’s society, which is caught between the requirement to generate profit and the expansion of the gigantic forces it has unleashed: of over-population; of superabundance of commodities, with possibly irreparable degradation of the environment as a side effect; of lack of natural resources; and of a looming shortage of basic foodstuffs (everywhere supplies are dwindling, and the analysts are saying that one year of bad harvests could cause a colossal food shortage).
It is simply utopian to think the question can be resolved under capitalism. The environmental movements are inevitably reactionary insofar as they would like to patch up this system of production, which is by nature not capable of being reformed. Only the proletariat, once it has taken power by revolutionary methods, will be able to reform anything, in the sense that it will build a new society adapted to man and to nature. Today, whether in Japan, already mourning the loss of its ten thousand dead, or in the rest of the world, people’s reactions have been very restrained. Because clearly under capitalism, the present arrangements are the best possible. The democratic method will always support capitalism and all of its excesses.
What we communists are waiting for is the latent force of the proletariat, building up as friction between the tectonic plates of society, to be released and generate a gigantic tidal wave, which will overwhelm the ignorance and criminal stupidity of bourgeois society. That is the tsunami we are hoping for!