Japan: Natural disaster exposes capitalism

Tragedy for workers

The situation in Japan is a complicated disaster for the workers in that country. There was a heavy earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami and there is the possibility of nuclear disaster. The earthquake and the tsunami were the fast killers, a nuclear disaster would more likely be a slow killer, but it is not the only one. Among the slow killers are lack of water, food, heating, medicine, the cold and disease in the affected area. And then there are the economic consequences in Japan and for the world economy.

The earthquake and the tsunami are natural disasters. Much has been said about the high level of preparedness for these calamities, but much remains to be said about the location of towns and villages. Japanese houses are light wooden structures that stand up to earthquakes rather well, but they are very vulnerable to tsunami’s when built in lower areas. But at this point in time, the problems around the relief effort are the most important.

Particularly vulnerable are the older and younger members of society. Already old people have died because of the difficult living circumstances in the relief centres, many more will die because they are unable to get out of their houses and get relief. As international reports show, many villages and towns have not been visited by rescue workers at all and have become veritable villages and towns of death. For weeks and months to come, victims will be found and it will not be easy to provide drink, food and shelter for those in the relief centres. On a personal level, there is an endless number of tragedies. Examples can be seen on television every day.

If further death and suffering is to be avoided it is vital that immediate self-organisation of working people and local communities takes place in quake-hit areas to oversee relief tasks and democratically determine the needs of reconstruction. 

The situation around the nuclear power plant in Fukushima is still a huge threat. This nuclear power plant is 40 years old and was due to be closed in February. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government gave it another lease of “life” for ten years. Needless to say that this was a decision, no doubt born out of greed and more profit, that approaches insanity.

Many professors of nuclear science have appeared on TV screens and in newspapers to explain the technicalities, but the facts are that all of the reactors are in grave danger of meltdown, some are on fire. Basins with spent fuel rods have not been cleared away from the facility (who knows what to do with them?) but kept there in basins in large quantities (11.125 rods, for times the contents of the reactors!).

Some have been taken out of reactors only recently and are still very active. Notwithstanding all the talk about safety in the designs of nuclear reactors, it is clear that these storage facilities are outside the inner cores of the reactors and therefore very dangerous. It also seems that their location higher up in the reactor buildings has caused a lot of cooling water to slosh out of these basins during the earthquake, leaving the rods exposed and free to react with each other.

These rods are clad with a metal called zirconium, which can burn when exposed to the extreme temperatures of nuclear fission when not cooled. Once ignited it burns extremely hot and can hardly be extinguished. Though the situation is constantly changing, it is clear that if a nuclear catastrophe can be avoided, it will be through luck and not design.

Workers at the Fukushima plant are putting up a heroic fight to avoid further disaster under intolerable working conditions but care should be taken that they are not forced to be heroes against their own will. It is absolutely vital that they are relieved by others after a very short while, so that exposure can be kept to a minimum. The same goes for firefighters and Self Defence Force members who are sent in. Already 5 workers have been killed and 22 wounded. Japanese capitalism has always said they did not want to become too dependent on oil for energy, but look at the monster they now depend on!

Japan urgently needs a complete review of its energy policy (30% dependent on nuclear power from 54 reactors). Major investments in clean forms of energy are necessary. With profits controlling everything, the nuclear industry will continue to produce this kind of disaster.

It is also clear that in Japan the government will need huge sums of money for the relief operation, limited as it is, and later on for the reconstruction of the affected areas. It will not hesitate to plunder social programmes with the argument that funds are more urgently needed for the earthquake and its consequences. Even though the affected area is not an industrial centre, production will suffer.

It is very crude to believe that the scale of the destruction will lead to people spending money in order to replace things; this is only a one-off thing and many elderly couples simply won’t have the money to have a new house built. Clearing up the mess will cost many months and will be expensive as well. It is entirely possible that building workers will be employed on the cheap on reconstruction projects. Other workers too will be faced with the problem that they will be asked to ‘limit their demands’ in the face of a national disaster…The government will push forward with its plans to increase the consumption tax in order to pay for the disaster and to cut child benefit.

In relation to the world economy, Japan will retract a lot of money in order to finance reconstruction. The yen will be high with the ’repatriation’ of the wealth of Japanese abroad and foreign investors pulling out of Japan, making exports more difficult. Selling assets in terms of real estate and shares will depress prices already low because of the crisis. As the oil fired power stations will need to run at top capacity, an increase in Japan’s need for oil is probable. As the Japanese economy has been in the doldrums for about 20 years it will probably remain so for the next 10. It will certainly be unable to pull the world economy forward.

If capitalists and the government have their way, the workers will pay the brunt of the bill for the earthquake, the tsunami and the possible nuclear disaster. Starting with energy and construction firms, the whole of the economy needs to be nationalised under the democratic control of the working class if this is to be avoided.

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March 2011