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Anti-Nuclear Movement Unclear On Capitalism

The 2011 Fukushima disaster exposed how energy companies sacrifice safety for profit, but the single issue anti-nuclear movement has little to say about the profit system.

As a Tokyo resident, I had a first-hand view of the anti-nuclear movement taking shape after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. I work in the district where most of government ministries are located, not far from the Diet building and the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), so I’ve encountered all sorts of protests, large and small.

The protests were a welcome sight to me not just because they expressed the anger felt toward that rotten outfit, TEPCO, and the elite bureaucrats who have done its bidding; but also because Japan has been sunk in a depressing mood of political apathy over the past two decades. To finally witness spirited demonstrations that brought together all sorts of people was invigorating. Particularly impressive were the festive gatherings outside the Prime Minister’s Residence every Friday last summer.

In recent months the protests have quieted down considerably, but anti-nuclear sentiment remains among much of the population, as was clear during the December general election campaign when politicians of all stripes made (usually vague) promises to eventually phase out nuclear energy.

The debate about the future of nuclear energy has taken capitalism quite for granted, however. Much of the discussion has revolved around whether it is “economically feasible” to dump nuclear power for alternative energy sources. Those in favour of the change try to bolster their case with a Keynesian claim that developing solar and wind energy will spur overall economic growth.

No plan is feasible unless it is profitable, which should already give anti-nuclear activists pause if they take the issue of human health and happiness as seriously as they claim. So far, though, the movement has shown little willingness to ponder the role of nuclear energy under capitalism, or how this profit-happy system heightens its inherent dangers.

A ‘manmade disaster’

A basic position among most opponents of nuclear energy is that it is beyond our ability to control; a technology that can never be made safe enough for human beings. The Fukushima disaster was taken as evidence of this failed technology—not the latest manifestation of a disastrous social system.

The myth that nuclear energy is safe had been propagated in Japan for decades by the energy conglomerates and their network of politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, and journalists. This myth crumbled before people’s eyes as the Fukushima disaster spun out of control. We saw the experts trotted out to insist that the accident was not as bad as it looked, or that radiation was not such a terrible thing. Scientists, government officials, and TEPCO spokesmen were still peddling the safety myth but the public wasn’t buying it.

But, in a peculiar way, turning the safety myth on its head has helped let TEPCO off the hook. That is to say, if nuclear energy is a force that defies human control, the question of the company’s responsibility becomes a secondary issue. Rather than being guilty of criminal negligence for the disaster, TEPCO could only be more generally blamed for promoting an unmanageable technology.

The underlying logic of many anti-nuclear activists is not so different from the way TEPCO tried to dodge its own responsibility by blaming the disaster solely on the ‘unimaginable’ scale of the tsunami. In either case, the emphasis is on a natural force beyond human control.

But TEPCO’s ‘who’da thunk it’ excuse did not stand up to scrutiny. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, a parliamentary panel that carried out a six-month investigation of the disaster, stated in its report that ‘The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011’; and that ‘The operator (TEPCO), the regulatory bodies (NISA and NSC) and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI), all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements.’

More specifically, the report points to how TEPCO overlooked various warnings over the years that had pointed to the ‘high possibility of tsunami levels reaching beyond the assumptions made at the time of [the plant’s] construction.’ Another fatal screw-up was the placement of diesel generators and other internal power equipment ‘within or nearby the plant,’ where they were soon inundated by the tsunami.

Based on its investigation, the panel concluded that the disaster must be categorized as a preventable, ‘manmade’ disaster—rather than an unavoidable result of the natural disaster. Of course, the level of safety needed to actually prevent the disaster was well above what existed at the Fukushima plant, or what exists now at many nuclear plants across this quake-prone land.

Preventable yet inevitable?

The crucial question, however, is not the technical issue of what TEPCO might have done to prevent the disaster but why it in fact did so little. This is a question that the government panel claims to answer but only arrives at a half-truth.

The panel’s report clearly states that the ‘accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators, and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties’ adding that: ‘The root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.’

Remove the word ‘root’ and there is little to object to as a description of the corruption at the heart of Japan’s nuclear industry. But blaming the ‘organizational and regulatory systems’ does not account for why the systems were so defective in the first place.

Reading the report, one has the impression that TEPCO is simply an organization that society happened to entrust with the purely technical matter of running nuclear power plants, and that it fell short in that responsibility because of its organizational defects and the shortcomings of regulators. All that is needed, therefore, are fundamental internal reforms and stricter oversight.

But let’s not forget that power plants exist not just to generate electricity but to generate profits for their operators as well. Couldn’t that simple fact have had something do to with the lax safety measures and ‘collusion’ with regulators?

TEPCO executives may have acted stupidly in the eyes of the company’s own scientists in neglecting safety, but at the time their decisions seemed shrewd enough to shareholders. (Although it all backfired spectacularly in the end!) What terrified the executives more than an earthquake or tsunami was the prospect of business losses.

In 2007, the company posted its first annual loss in nearly 30 years following the shut down Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant as a result of the fire and radiation leak caused by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that same year. The plant was closed for two years, meaning huge losses for the company.

The irony is that this disaster (and earlier accidents at the Tokaimura plant), which should have alerted TEPCO to catastrophic risks, only drove it to pursue profit more relentlessly, cutting corners to make up for its losses. Clearly, even though the disaster was “preventable,” technically speaking, under the profit system accidents of some scale are a near inevitability.

The anti-nuclear movement itself has concentrated on the technical side of the issue, and only aimed to remove the ‘evil’ of nuclear power without placing any blame on capitalism. Whatever their disagreements over nuclear energy, both sides of the debate support the continuation of a profit-based system.

Out of control system

If the nuclear energy sector and its regulators were a monstrous exception to the norms of behaviour in other industries, the anti-nuclear movement’s case might be compelling. But let’s be serious. Recall that just a year before Fukushima the lax safety measures of British Petroleum and its subcontractors resulted in a three-month-long (!) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Or what about the deadly coal-mine accidents that occur every year like clockwork. Or take whatever industrial accident you like.

If the Fukushima disaster proves that nuclear power is ‘out of human’ control, as anti-nuclear activists argue, couldn’t the same argument be made regarding those and other industries? Not only for the deaths of the workers in those industries, but because of the long-term health impact from coal-burning thermal plants and the like.

This is not to argue that ‘nuclear energy isn’t so bad.’ The point is rather that an acceptable level of safety for nuclear power (if that is indeed possible) is incompatible with capitalism—just as safety is sacrificed in so many other industries in the same pursuit of profit.

What is ‘out of human control’ is not this or that technology, but the social system of production under which we live. That system is quite literally out of our hands as workers, and even the capitalists who administer it must act in accordance with the needs of Capital.

People in Japan and elsewhere are right to be deeply suspicious of the nuclear industry. But that suspicion must be extended to other industries and to the capitalist system as a whole if fundamental social change is ever to occur to bring society under conscious human control.

Much of the power of the anti-nuclear movement seems to stem from the widespread sense of powerlessness people naturally have under capitalism. Nuclear energy is almost a symbol for Capital itself: something created by human beings but with a power that eludes our control.

Capitalism is the issue

The way the Japanese leftist have rallied behind the single issue of abolishing nuclear energy, without having much if anything to say about capitalism, is characteristic of their overall approach. The politics of the Left comes down to the assortment of positions taken on the burning social problems of the day, without stopping to consider the deeper causes; this is why an air of unreality hangs about the ‘solutions’ leftists propose.

Leftists vehemently oppose nuclear energy in moralistic terms, viewing it as a social evil, but pay little attention to the role of nuclear energy within capitalism. They seem to forget what sort of world we are living in; a world in which each nation’s energy policy is ultimately dictated by the needs of Capital.

Japan rapidly developed nuclear energy in the 1970s to fuel its rapid growth amid rising oil prices. The issue of whether the technology was safe enough for human beings was not the primary concern. How can the Left bemoan this outcome without calling for an end to such an inhuman system? Don’t they recognize that the insatiable thirst for energy is linked to the thirst for profit? This economic reality is precisely why China, India, and other countries are going ahead with nuclear expansion despite the Fukushima disaster.

That is not to say that without the profit motive nuclear energy—or coal or oil for that matter—would suddenly become ‘safe.’ But human beings under socialism would finally be in a position to discuss the risks and benefits of each energy source, and rationally decide on the best choices to make.