'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Reflections About the Japanese Nuclear Catastrophe 

UPDATE 1: From a New York Times article about the remaining workers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station:

They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.

They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.

They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind. They have volunteered, or been assigned, to pump seawater on dangerously exposed nuclear fuel, already thought to be partly melting and spewing radioactive material, to prevent full meltdowns that could throw thousands of tons of radioactive dust high into the air and imperil millions of their compatriots.

INITIAL POST: The nuclear catastrophe in Japan is beyond my capabilities to address on this blog, there's just too much happening too fast, and I lack the expertise to add much beyond what one can find at the Guardian, the New York Times and the BBC. Of course, you have to carefully sift through what you find there. There is, however, one subject that deserves emphasis, the extraordinary efforts of the Tokyo Electric Power workers to prevent full meltdowns at six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants in northeastern Japan, meltdowns that would result in massive releases of life threatening amounts of radiation. Five workers have died, 22 others have been injured and two others are still missing.

As described yesterday in the New York Times:

The nuclear plants’ operator, Tokyo Electric Power, has declined to provide details about the workers.

But Arnold Gundersen, a consultant who worked in American plants nearly identical to the stricken Japanese ones, said it was likely that the company was calling in retirees and workers from unaffected plants for help. And perhaps for sacrifice, as well. They may also be asking for people to volunteer to receive additional exposure, he said.

People who are working close to the reactor — pumping water, or operating valves inside the secondary containment structure — would almost certainly be wearing full bodysuits and air packs, Mr. Gundersen said. But some forms of radiation can penetrate any gear.

Gamma rays and other penetrating radiation can cause cancers and other long-term illnesses or, in high amounts, near-term illness or death.

Health physicists should gauge the radiation level in the work area, and the workers would normally be told how long they can remain. There may be a health physicist who will say, You only have an hour or two to do this job, Mr. Gundersen said. Each worker would carry a dosimeter, which measures radiation exposure, and they’ll be looking at it, he added. When it hits a certain number, they should leave.

Suits and air packs are meant to keep radioactive particles off the skin and out of the lungs until the workers return to a safer area.

Workers are trained to remove the gear in a specific way to avoid leaving any particles on their skin that would result in continuing exposure.

It seems probable that we will learn of specific acts of heroism reminiscent of firefighters like Viktor Birkun at Chernobyl in 1986, even if, unlike Birkun and the firefighters, they have been supplied with protective clothing:

As the plant managers and technicians fled or frantically tried to contact Moscow, the firefighters rushed straight into the inferno. With only a cotton uniform to protect him, Mr Birkun drove his fire truck over the reactor’s metal roof, now lying on the ground, and up to 15m (50ft) from Reactor 4.

Using his bare hands he lowered the engine’s siphon into the nearest cooling pool to suck up water for his colleagues as they battled 300 fires around the complex. Within seconds he began to feel the effects of the gamma rays that were bombarding his internal organs.

He started vomiting about every 30 seconds. He grew dizzy and weak. After two hours he could not stand.

Doctors later gave him a certificate indicating that he had received 260 ber (biological equivalents of roentgen), equivalent to 1,000 years of background radiation.

But experts estimate that the radiation that he absorbed was even higher, and enough to cause acute radiation sickness (ARS).

I’m amazed he survived, Michael Repacholi, the top radiation expert at the World Health Organisation, said.

It was a hugely heroic effort, and I suspect anyone who understood how much radiation was there would never have gone in.

Twenty years on Mr Birkun knows he is lucky to be alive and living in Moscow with his wife, Nadezhda, and his daughters, Lyudmila and Valentina.

Of the 134 liquidators with a diagnosis of ARS, 28 died in 1986, including at least six firefighters. Mr Birkun, now 56, is proud of the sacrifice that his team made to reduce the cloud of smoke that spread radioactive particles across Europe and even as far as Japan.

These were the people who saved Europe, he said, fingering a black-and-white photograph of his former colleagues. If they had not done what they did, the fire would have spread to Reactors 1, 2 and 3.

One of curious aspects of the use of nuclear energy over the course of my life has been the extent to which it has transcended ideology. Initially promoted as the peaceful use of the atom, a non-military justification for research that has produced the most frighteningly destructive weapons ever known, nuclear energy has been almost universally embraced by elites. During the Cold War, capitalist countries, such as the US, the UK, Canada, France, West Germany and Japan, as well as socialist ones, like the USSR and the German Democratic Republic, embarked upon nuclear plant construction programs, often against intense grassroots opposition. Lesser developed countries of this period, such as India, Spain and South Africa also brought nuclear power plants on line, although, interestingly, Central and South American countries were laggards, with most countries building no plants, the exceptions being the more industrialized ones, such as Mexico and Brazil, who built only one. Now, even purportedly anti-imperialist countries like Iran and Venezuela have adopted plans to rely upon nuclear power for future energy supplies.

Despite difficulties with the costs of construction and operation, nuclear power has persisted, and, as a possible response to global warming, may flourish yet again, despite the catastrophe in Japan. The explanation for such persistence lies, I think, in the compatibility of nuclear power with the intertwined interests of the state and capital, regardless of the way particular states describe themselves. From the standpoint of capital, whether aggregated in capitalist or socialist societies, the construction of nuclear power plants wasadvantageous when compared with alternatives. First, they obviously required a lot of capital investment. Hence, they absorbed large concentrations of it associated with governments, corporations and, particularly, financial institutions. Gigantism had an allure for all of them, because it served the purpose of oligopolizing the accumulation of capital, the production of energy and, more covertly, the knowledge associated with scientific and economic decisions. No other energy source had the ability to facilitate this objective like nuclear power, except for those associated with hydrocarbons.

Second, the construction of such facilities was a substantial endeavor. Capital was put to use employing large numbers of workers, ranging from architects, to nuclear engineers, to attorneys, to construction workers, to steel workers, to transport workers, just to name a few. A government regulatory apparatus was required to oversee nuclear plant construction projects as well as the subsequent operation of the completed plants. Such projects participated in the acceleration of the division of labor within society, a division of labor whereby more and more specialized knowledge and expertise was created to address activities of ever increasing complexity. Workers were therefore transformed in a way so as to enhance their utility while severing common bonds of collective identity. Meanwhile, the power to influence political and economic decisions was concentrated in fewer and fewer people, not so much because only a small number of people possessed the information necessary to make them, but, instead, because only a small number of people had access to the people with supposedly sufficient information to legitimize them. Needless to say, the entire process was self-referential. Capitalism and the centralized state depended upon the proliferation of hierarchy to more firmly entrench themselves, and few things, other than the military-industrial complex and the emerging technologies of surveillance and social control, were as harmonious with this proliferation as the increased use of nuclear power.

Accordingly, for many years, nuclear projects constituted a form of economic development, a glamorous, modern form of industrialization, because they employed large numbers of people in jobs with good wages and benefits while simultaneously disempowering them and promoting even more extreme concentrations of capital and state power. It was, in effect, close to a perfect circle. Advocates for alternative energy sources therefore failed to understand that the scope and expense of these projects were actually a strong argument in their favor from the standpoint of capitalists and the proponents of the centralized state. One of the worst qualiaties that one could attribute to any energy source or policy was that the infrastructure is easy to construct and maintain, or, even more heinous, that anybody can do it, which is why conservation was usually considered an inferior alternative to investing in new supply.

Given all this, it may not be coincidental that the advent of neoliberalism, and its attendant financialization of the economies of nation states, has been accompanied by a substantial decline in nuclear power plant construction, as well as an increased emphasis upon conservation, in some parts of the world, especially the US. Having overcome the socialist and social democratic alternatives, capitalists and their allies within the state redirected the vast expenditures upon nuclear power plant construction into the development of more and more speculative financial instruments. Countries more resistant to neoliberalism, such as France and Japan, pressed forward. Some research on this subject might result in some fascinating discoveries. In any event, it appears that such construction is now seen as compatible with the globalization of investment, production, transportation and communication, given the number of countries that now publicly state that they intend to move towards nuclear energy as a power source. Or, to put it differently, we have lived through the neoliberalization of nuclear power. The fact that it is prone to catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 only increases its allure. As described by Naomi Klein, Greg Palast and others, the current economic order depends upon periodic turmoil, whether generated virtually in financial markets through the mendacious actions of investors, regulators and politicians, or in the real, tangible world by them in conjunction with the unpredictability of the environment, to thrive.

Hat tip to Jack Crow over at The Crow's Eye for educating me as to the heroism of Viktor Birkun and the other firefighters at Chernobyl.

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