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Material World: Japan’s unnatural disaster

Material World

Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural phenomena. But it is known where – if not when – they are going to strike. So in principle society could take action to minimise the human impact.

It was known that the seabed off the northeastern coast of Honshu (the main island of the Japanese archipelago) is prone to earthquakes. It was known that a sufficiently powerful offshore earthquake would generate a tsunami. So why not leave the endangered coastal area uninhabited?

Crammed into the danger zone

This earthquake and most of its aftershocks were offshore. However, the next major earthquake may well occur, as long predicted, on land. It is a matter of when, not whether.

The area at greatest risk is the southern coastal strip of Honshu that stretches west from Tokyo – a city already devastated by earthquakes in 1891 and 1923. And yet the eastern half of this strip, up to Osaka, covering a mere 6 percent of Japan’s land area, is the country’s industrial powerhouse, with 45 percent of its population of 127.5 million. Tokyo and its outlying cities alone contain 30 percent of the country’s population. Would a rational society cram so many people and resources into the zone of maximum danger?

It is true that many modern buildings have been equipped to withstand seismic shocks. But most older buildings are much more poorly designed. For one glaring example, look at some photos of Tokyo street scenes and count the bulky signboards attached to storefronts at a single point, just waiting for a jolt to break free and fall on the heads of the people below.

To accommodate urban growth, about a quarter of Tokyo Bay (150 square miles) has been reclaimed from the sea. When the earth shakes, as it has recently, the loose soil of this reclaimed land undergoes liquefaction (becomes liquid). The shaking is also liable to spill and set ablaze the oil and toxic chemicals stored in the numerous tanks that line the shore of Tokyo Bay. Fires still rage up and down the coast, including a conflagration at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara City.

Suicide bomber

The ultimate in insanity, however, is Japan’s growing reliance on nuclear power, driven by the desire of its ruling class to overcome reliance on energy imports, especially oil from the Middle East. Nuclear power currently supplies 30 percent of the country’s energy – a figure projected to rise to 50 percent by 2030. Fukushima, where a Chernobyl-type disaster is still unfolding, is one of a dozen nuclear plants located on the coastal strip of northeastern Honshu, in the path of tsunamis from offshore earthquakes. The Hamaoka plant, to the southwest of Tokyo, perches on an active fault line.

Katsuhiko Ishibashi of Kobe University, a seismologist who resigned from a committee setting safety guidelines for nuclear reactors in 2005 when his concerns over building nuclear plants on earthquake fault lines were ignored, put it this way: “Japan is an earthquake-prone archipelago, and lining its waterfront are 54 nuclear plants. It’s like a suicide bomber wearing grenades around his belt.”

It is not only Japan that generates nuclear power in earthquake-prone areas. Some 20 percent of the world’s 443 nuclear reactors are located in seismic zones. There are two nuclear power plants at risk from earthquakes in China’s Fujian Province, one in Turkey, and one in Armenia. In the United States several nuclear power plants are in places that have experienced earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes. Another tsunami-triggered disaster like that at Fukushima is waiting to happen in San Diego, California, where a nuclear power plant stands right on the beach, facing an active fault line a few miles offshore.

There were also technical problems with the design and operation of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima complex. The company that owns the complex, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), has a record of covering up safety issues. The complex was built by Toshiba, using a reduced-cost design by General Electric with a relatively small containment structure.

Does it make sense?

From the perspective of a truly human community – that is, socialism – it makes no sense deliberately to court disaster in this manner. But does it make sense even from a capitalist point of view, considering the enormous losses borne by the companies most affected by the devastation? After all, capital craves its own expansion, not annihilation. It does not really share the death wish of the suicide bomber.

One answer is that most investors are concerned solely with expected short-term profits – and they never expect disaster, even though they must know it is always a possibility. Moreover, high-speed communications and data processing make it easy to move capital around almost instantaneously in search of maximum short-term profits. By giving priority to reducing risk, a company would have to accept higher costs and lower profits in the short term. It would soon find itself short of capital and might face hostile takeover or bankruptcy.

Another factor may be at work here – namely, the psychological mechanism called denial. Instead of carefully assessing risks and consciously accepting them, a capitalist may avoid stress by closing his mind in advance to considerations of risk that he fears will jeopardise his profits. He may persuade himself that those who draw attention to risks have a hidden political agenda. This applies especially to risks that are posed by nature. To take nature and its requirements seriously might jeopardise not only profits but the whole profit system.