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How Capitalist Dumb-ocracy Deals with Vital Questions

The Japanese government is keen to restart the country’s nuclear reactors without real public debate

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, like any great crisis in society, laid bare the half-hidden—or ‘half-forgotten’—truths of capitalism. People in Japan and around the world were reminded of how companies sacrifice safety in pursuit of profit; how politicians are bought off by those companies; and how capitalists treat the victims of disasters as so much collateral damage.

The aftermath of the disaster has also revealed just how narrow democracy is under capitalism. This has become clear in the way decisions are being made on whether to restart some of Japan’s 48 nuclear reactors. The question of whether the reactors are safe enough to be restarted is of great concern to people living in Japan, but, as is so often the case under capitalism, the decision is not really in their hands.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority, a new administrative body formed in 2012 by merging the Nuclear Safety Commission and Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, is tasked with the approval of the applications submitted by energy companies to restart reactors. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is quite happy to have the NRA take direct responsibility for the decision, not only to avoid blame in the case of another disaster but also to foster the impression that the decision is being made on a strictly scientific basis, in line with the stricter safety regulations introduced in June 2013.

The new rules call for the construction of sea walls to protect plants from the largest tsunami anticipated and the installation of filters to remove radioactive substances vented from reactor cores during an emergency. The rules also require the installation of a separate control room to operate the reactor in the event of a disaster. But certain ‘grace periods’ are allowed for companies to operate reactors before meeting some of these requirements.

In July, the NRA issued its preliminary approval for restarting the two reactors at the Sendai Nuclear Plant in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima, operated by Kyushu Electric Power Co. The final decision will be made by the NRA after verifying the required design changes at the plant and its operating structure.

The government recognizes, however, that a decision made by the NRA alone would lack credibility in the eyes of many, so the approval process also calls for a certain degree of consent among those living near the nuclear plant But that local approval (or disapproval) is not legally binding in any way—and it is limited to the city where the plant is located (Satsumasendai) and the Kagoshima prefectural assembly.

In essence, this ‘informal approval’ is just a fig leaf to cover the fact that the decision has been reached by the NRA commissioners (appointed by the Prime Minister) that the Sendai plant should be restarted.

As expected, the Kagoshima prefectural assembly approved the restarting of the reactors on 7 November (by a vote of 38 to 9). The same day, the governor of the prefecture, Yuichiro Ito, backed the decision—although he tried to sidestep his own responsibility by calling the decision ‘unavoidable’ and claiming that the central government would assume final responsibility in the case of an emergency.

Prior to that approval, the municipal assembly and the mayor of Satsumasendai approved the decision to restart the plant, on 27 October. It was a foregone conclusion that the city would approve the decision since it receives a massive annual subsidy of roughly \1.2 billion (£6.6m) a year, as well as another \400 million (£2.2m) for a nuclear fuel tax.

Of course, in the case of a disaster, the fallout would certainly not be limited to Satsumasendai. There are in fact eight other municipalities located within a 30km radius of the plant. But, unlike the host city, they receive few subsidies related to the nuclear plant.

The town of Ichikikushikino, with a population of 30,000, is as close as just 5km from the plant in some places, yet only receives a subsidy of \90 million a year (£495,000 - less than 1 percent of its annual income). Given the risks it faces, the town’s residents had asked to be included in the informal approval process. The request was turned down for fear of opposition; and in fact half of the residents later signed a petition opposing the restarting of the Sendai plant.

Along with the bogus ‘approval’ process at the local level, the NRA held a series of ‘town hall meetings’ in October to reassure residents in Kagoshima of the safety of the Sendai plant. But the number of participants at those meetings was limited and they were not allowed to record the proceedings or ask questions regarding evacuation plans.

The way the government has sought to limit public input and evade criticism extends to the choice of the Sendai nuclear plant to begin the safety screening process. The plant’s location in Kagoshima made it an obvious choice for a number of reasons, despite the fact that its reactors are 30 years old.

First of all, the prefecture is a long-standing stronghold of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Currently, 70 percent of the assembly members are LDP-affiliated. From a simple geographic perspective, the decision also made sense to the Abe administration, since Kagoshima is far removed from Fukushima and from Tokyo, which is the centre of a powerful anti-nuclear movement.

Another factor is that Kyushu Electric is one of the regional utility companies that is still in the red, with losses of \36.5 billion (£200m) in the first quarter of fiscal 2014 (compared to the \52.5 billion profit of Tokyo Electric posted for that same period). This means that the company plausibly can make the argument that the restarting of its nuclear plants is vital to its business.

Other utility companies had been making that argument in trying to get their reactors back online, while also threatening consumers with higher rates and their own workers with lower wages (and making good on both threats), but now that these companies are profitable again despite the nuclear shutdown, their ‘good-for-business’ argument has become a bit harder to swallow.

Prime Minister Abe seems to hope that once the Sendai plant is approved, the decision can serve as the template for approving reactors in other prefectures, including those where the conditions are less favourable to his administration. In other words, the approval process is proceeding according to a political—not a scientific—logic, with more attention paid to massaging public opinion than ensuring public safety.

The basic argument of the government on the need for nuclear power comes down to profit- or ‘economic growth’, to use the favoured expression. The problem, though, is that the Japanese public is aware that even in the heyday of nuclear power, when most of the reactors were up and running, providing around 30 percent of Japan’s overall energy supplies, the economy was not exactly booming. And those who have reflected a bit more on their own life experiences, if they have lived long enough, would know that economic growth is no guarantee of better living conditions for workers.

It is true that Japan is a country that lacks energy resources, forcing it to import more oil and gas in the absence of nuclear power. This is a situation that would be faced even in a post-capitalist world. But under capitalism the objective or scientific aspect of the problem is intertwined with the question of profitability, so that the debate is always limited by that reality. This makes it hard to distinguish between the technically and the economically feasible.

Today, the debate over what safety measures are possible or whether more renewable energy can be generated come down to a question of money, not pure science. In a socialist world, people living in Japan could finally have a rational debate on how to generate enough energy for their own needs. The conclusion might be reached that the benefits of nuclear energy to Japan outweigh its obvious risks. But that would be a decision the community could reach democratically, weighing all of the evidence. No such democratic process exists in Japan or anywhere else today, nor could it exist under a system that revolves around profit.

MIKE SCHAUERTE