by Anthony J. Hall, Professor of Globalization Studies University of Lethbridge
From Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to the witches brew of melting, spewing and exploding nuclear matter at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Number One, the history of humanity’s first decades of encounter with energy’s atomic sources is unfolding as a poetic saga of hubris and tragedy.
In 2011 as in 1945, the people of Japan have been put at the centre of a dark science experiment testing the limits of human capacities to absorb new frontiers of nuclear devastation.
The tsunami of annihilation and then slow, radiation-induced sicknesses and deformities was introduced to the world with the terrible blasts of the two American Atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fat Man and Little Boy were the codenames bestowed by the US Air Force on the two original atomic bombs that were dropped on the two defenseless Japanese cities from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay.
The devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki may prove limited compared to the catastrophe now set in motion at the maimed power station just north of Tokyo. The devastation underway has such enormous destructive potential because the site of Fukushima Daiichi (which translates from Japanese as “Fukushima Power Plant Number One”) has long been made to double as a massive storage facility for spent nuclear fuel rods, the most deadly and volatile form of nuclear waste. (1)
Long the Achilles heel of the nuclear energy industry, the used rods that have fueled nuclear plants remain highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years or more. The immense technological problems entailed in trying to isolate this most toxic form of nuclear waste from life’s natural cycles over such vast periods of time has helped to catalyze massive public opposition to the expansion of the nuclear energy industry.
Rather than expose this Achilles heel to the light of yet more public controversy, the lords of most of the world’s 400 or so nuclear power plants decided some time ago to put off a reckoning with the intractable political and technological problems associated with locating new installations devoted specifically to storing contaminated fuel rods emanating from multiple nuclear power stations. The multiplication of functions, where nuclear power stations are made to double as storage facilities for huge concentrations of densely-packed nuclear waste is nowhere so marked as in the United States. (2)
The severity of this congestion of dangerous functions at nuclear power stations in the United States was aggravated when President Obama put the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility on hold as an expedient to assuage aroused Nevada voters.
The problem of what do with the nuclear waste has been a primary, yet persistently neglected, facet of the nuclear industry from its inception. A major proof of this neglect is the fact that the Hanford Reservation in Washington State, the site where the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were manufactured and assembled, contains 53 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste to this day. (3) As Carol L. Wilson, the first General Manager of the US Atomic Energy Commission observed when he looked back at the beginnings of the industry from the perspective of 1979,
Chemists and chemical engineers were not interested in nuclear waste. It was not glamorous; there were no careers; it was messy; nobody got brownie points for caring about nuclear waste… There was no real interest or profit for dealing with the back end of the fuel cycle. (4)
The tight juxtaposition of many installations for generating nuclear power, processing nuclear waste, and storing nuclear waste within the narrow confines of the one-and-a half square mile site of the maimed Fukushima plant epitomizes the irresponsibility of a troubled industry. The depth of the problem is confirmed by the failure of nuclear regulators to explain clearly in the course of the current crisis the immensity of problems generated by the need to isolate vast quantities of toxic nuclear material from any exposure whatsoever to air, to water, and to all living organisms over hundreds of thousands of years. In speculating that the Fukushima disaster could fast be approaching its “Chernobyl Moment,” Mike Whitney has cautioned that much of the mainstream media’s goal has been “to conceal the scale of the catastrophe in order to protect the nuclear industry.” (5)
One of the great tragedies of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is that, as with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the episode is already giving rise to a huge case study on the uncertain effects of what happens to all living beings, including humans, when they are exposed to such large-scale releases of highly toxic radionuclides, including, for starters, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, Iodine-129, and Plutonium-239. What are the effects on public health when our life support systems of food, air and water are exposed to so many radioactive elements rushing simultaneously into sea, river, land, and air at extremely quick rates and in very large quantities? The confusion and subterfuge in the early stages of this giant science experiment on human subjects was suggested on March 27 when officials first reported that water leaking from Fukushima #1’s Reactor #2 was about 10 million times more radioactive than normal. By the end of the day Sakae Muto, Vice-President of the Tokyo Power Company that runs the crippled plant, revised the original estimate down to 100 thousand times normal levels. In at least one account of Muto’s comments, he is reported to have “ruled out having an independent monitor to oversee the various checks despite the errors.” (6)
The Fukushima disaster provides a text book example of the huge dangers inherent in literally stacking up, one on top of the other, so many of the most dangerous industrial processes known to humankind. (7) A single breakdown in one industrial cycle can spread to neighboring industrial operations creating a series of proliferating chain reactions. This outcome reflects the reality that chain reactions are the atomic essence of nuclear energy. The release of great amounts of radioactivity into the air system and water systems of the crippled nuclear plant is making periodic evacuations of the crippled control room necessary, removing human agency from the chain reaction of mounting breakdowns, as one disaster begets another, and as a local emergency moves closer and closer to the threshold of a global catastrophe.
The Fukushima #1 site encloses six closely configured nuclear reactors together with seven pools that were supposed to be devoted to the temporary storage of used nuclear fuel. Instead of periodically emptying the nuclear storage facilities to lessen the likelihood of breakdown in such a high-risk hotspot of intertwined doomsday scenarios, those running this antiquated installation have for four decades packed more and more spent fuel rods into tighter and tighter configurations. As more and more nuclear waste was concentrated in increasingly overwhelmed cooling pools, the greater and greater became the chance that an industrial disruption, such as the loss of liquid coolant, might provide the environment where radioactive materials could interact in ways that would extend from radioactive fires to the horror of explosions and nuclear meltdowns in the open air. Even the limited and highly censored images emerging from the Fukushima site have provided clear indications of what this combination of dire circumstances actually looks like.
There could be no better expression of the utter madness of this juxtaposition and multiplication of dangers than the design of the General Electric Mark I reactors at Fukushima and at dozens of other sites around the world. This GE system, originally designed to propel the first generation of US nuclear submarines, situates the cooling pools for spent nuclear fuel rods directly OVER THE TOP of live nuclear reactors. Any disruption of the nuclear reactors, therefore, is quite likely to disrupt the attending mechanism for storing nuclear waste. The reverse is similarly true. (8) This juxtaposition of functions may have seemed unavoidable in the 1950s when the original designers of the Mark I system faced the challenge of trying to cram so many industrial functions into the confined space of a nuclear propelled submarine. But what is the industry’s justification for linking so closely the mechanisms for generating nuclear power and for cooling as well as storing nuclear waste in the more open environment of land-based nuclear power plants?
The plan back in the early days of the nuclear power industry was to ease the multiplier effect of combined nuclear dangers by carting away nuclear waste from such close proximity to live nuclear reactors. Because of the so-called NIMBY effect– namely the consistency of citizens’ mobilization to block the construction of nuclear waste dumps by proclaiming “Not In My Back Yard”—the anticipated development of sites devoted exclusively to the large-scale storage of spent nuclear fuel never materialized. The result is that Japan’s nuclear power plants, like most nuclear power plants around the world, have become repositories for large accumulations of highly toxic nuclear waste. Only the German nuclear industry has begun seriously to avert the likelihood of chain reactions of proliferating nuclear disasters by making tentative moves to store spent fuel rods to specially designed facilities away well from live nuclear power plants.
Some of the nuclear waste at Fukushima has been packed in multiple casks. Questions have been asked if some of these casks, which can float if only partially filled, were swept out to sea by the Sendai tsunami. The largest part of the nuclear waste from the nuclear power generators was stored in seven pools, six of which are (or possible were), as already noted, situated directly above the live nuclear reactors. The seventh and largest storage pool, whose condition remains unclear, is said by the Tokyo Power Company to contain well over 6,000 waste assemblies. Each assembly contains 64 separate spent nuclear fuel rods. Each rod contains hundreds of radioactive pellets. Most of the reactors together with the installations for the storage of radioactive waste seem to have been seriously disrupted in a variety of still-unknown ways as a result of the series of explosions and fires that ripped through Fukushima One following the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami. The simultaneous convergence of so many breakdowns was quite predictable given Japan’s location on a major seismic fault line and the power plant’s location on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Just down the coast from the site of the worsening nuclear disaster is Fukushima Power Plant Number Two. It has four more reactors along with accompanying facilities for processing and storing spent nuclear fuel rods. We have been reassured that Fukushima Two, one of 53 nuclear power stations in Japan, has been stabilized. Could its nuclear materials yet be ignited or otherwise disrupted if a massive explosion was to take place at Fukushima One?
The potential wallop of this ongoing fast release of radionuclides into the land, sea and winds of the Pacific Rim could, in worst case scenarios, become many orders of magnitude more lethal than the hundred or so pounds of fissionable material made to explode over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Fukushima installation combines antique reactors designed during the early years of the Cold War with the most recent generation of plutonium-laced fuel rods produced by AREVA Corporation, France’s most aggressive nuclear merchant and innovator. The core ingredient of nuclear bombs, plutonium is the most deadly ingredient known to science.
The deliberate combination of the most antique nuclear reactors with the most advanced form of high-octane nuclear fuel is so wildly negligent that it is almost certainly constitutes a criminal violation of public safety laws. There were many interventions in Japanese courts seeking to block this nuclear madness. Unfortunately the interventions to protect public health failed.
Much of the controversy revolves around the activities of a so-called nuclear reprocessing site at Rokkasho. Starting in October of 2010, AREVA’s plutonium-laced rods began to be loaded into the nuclear fuel tank of Reactor 3. Reactor 3 is the core installation surrounded by containment shed that on March 14 exploded high into the air in full view of nearby cameras. (9) This explosion occurred two days after the initial blast at Reactor #1, also clearly captured on camera. (10) AREVA’s first corporate response to the disaster was, like GE, to disclaim any legal liability for its role in the disaster. AREVA’s spin doctors then quoted approvingly a newspaper editorial asserting, “The public needs to calm down, the environmentalists need to quit trying to make political hay out of a grave crisis, and the politicians need to grow a spine.” (11)
One of the primary motivations for building nuclear power plants in the first place has been to produce the plutonium needed for the construction of nuclear weapons. (12) This overlapping of functions continues yet. The tight integration of the business of designing and manufacturing nuclear devices as weapons of mass destruction and the business of using nuclear fuel to generate electricity for broad public consumption needs to be emphasized again and again. (13) To gain insights into the linkages between the building of nuclear power plants and the construction of nuclear weapons one need only consider the controversy attending relevant developments in Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. In 1945 at the dawning of the nuclear age none of these countries even existed except for India. At the time India was still a colony of Great Britain. The controversy currently swirling around Iran’s nuclear program repeats in a new context the controversy surrounding earlier stages of the efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The persistently persecuted whistle blower, Mordechai Vanuna, provided the world in 1986 with pictures illustrating the thick web of industrial connections linking the generation of nuclear energy and the development of nuclear weapons in Israel. His photographs shed considerable light on Israel’s top-secret installations for the manufacturing of nuclear devices at the Dimona complex in the southeastern corner of one of the world’s most heavily militarized countries. (14) Another illustration of this same pattern came to light when it was reported in 2010 that the weapons-grade tritium manufactured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant would be channeled to the production of nuclear weapons in the United States. (15)
The approval of this transfer by President Barack Obama should not come as a surprise. He and many members of his inner circle, including David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, have received significant financial and political backing from the Exelon Corporation, the biggest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States. Exelon runs 10 nuclear power stations with a total of 17 reactors. (16) The core of their nuclear empire is in Illinois, the home state of the current US president. One of Barack Obama’s major fund raisers is John Rogers Jr., a member of the Exelon board and Chairman of Ariel Investments. (17)
From its inception in the darkest days of the Cold War, the nuclear energy industry was designed with a view to providing a more civilized civilian face to the stealthy operations of a military establishment that developed atomic energy as medium for mass destruction, including mass murder, on an unprecedented scale. Some telling continuities have been placed on full display, therefore, in the linkages connecting the subjugation of the Japanese to the horrors of state terror at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to the present prospect of their slow submission to nuclear-induced sicknesses and deformities from the failed experiment in nuclear deregulation at Fukushima. The prospect of this nuclear plague spreading to surrounding countries and regions helps to underline the obsolescence of our outmoded conceptions of national sovereignty in the twenty-first century.
The origins of this nuclear plant’s design in the operations of the permanent war economy maintained by the United States since 1941 helps to clarify the artificiality between the civilian and military functions in our societies and in the unaccountable global corporations that have long acted as our real, behind-the-scenes governors. A former researcher for the Livermore Nuclear Weapons Company based in California, Leuren Moret has pointed out that 85% of all the world’s nuclear power plants have been designed by only two companies, General Electric and Westinghouse. (18) Both these corporate leviathans have grown up around core divisions devoted to the development of weapons of mass destruction. Like many military-based firms, both these companies have owned and controlled large media conglomerates integral to the psychological warfare served up to us on a daily basis to divert attention from the real workings of the permanent war economy.
If and when the investigations take place into the genesis of the nuclear disaster presently underway in Japan, it will be important to look much higher up the chain of responsibility and command than the officials of the Tokyo Power Company. The notorious corruption and fraud of TEPCO officials is but a low-level manifestation of an interlocked system of global power based on the tight marriage of banking, military and media empires. In the closed kleptocracy of this increasingly concentrated and unaccountable complex of governance by the few, of the few and for the few, conflict-of-interest, bribery, blackmail, negligence, cover-up and failures of due diligence are given wide latitude. Under these circumstances the supposed safeguards thought to reside in periodic elections, even in the so-called liberal democracies, have become little more than window dressing in a political culture modeled to replicate the appearance of choice between, say, Pepsi and Coke, Westinghouse and General Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba.
Accompanying the still-unfolding global financial debacle and following immediately in the wake of BP’s massive oil contamination of the Gulf of Mexico, the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima #1 highlights yet again the suicidal trajectory onto which we have been placed. All humanity is experiencing a wild ride on an accelerating technological juggernaut that outstrips the capacities of our now-outmoded systems of political economy and public education to keep up. Some would say we have been collectively betrayed in this death walk through forms of televised mass hypnosis that helped us accept the massive devolution of government powers to the so-called private sector. The Fukushima tragedy underlines the outcome of this journey of deregulation towards extremes that grossly violate the public interest and sabotage the common good. When even the nuclear energy industry is run as a private business for cost-cutting corporations, the pendulum of deregulation has definitely swung way too far.
The unanswered questions arising from these and many similar extremes of deregulation come easily. How are the activities of those who design and operate nuclear reactors as well as nuclear storage facilities in any way private? How are the operations of companies extracting oil from, say, the Gulf of Mexico or the Tar Sands of Alberta, in any way private? What is private about the assaults on ecology and public health that have been shown to occur regularly and on a massive scale in the industrial transformation of matter into energy? Who is supposed to pay for the clean up when supposedly-private corporations mess up? Who is to be held liable in societies where the for-profit corporations have been legally structured around the concept of limited liability?
How are the activities of Goldman Sachs or the other banking partners of AIG in any way private when their deregulated derivative products became so toxic that they plunged the global economy into meltdown mode? Now, at Fukushima, the meltdown from excessive deregulation is not a mere metaphor. What is a “partial meltdown” anyway? Hiroshima beget Fukushima.
The nature of humanity’s shared dilemma is highlighted by the propensity of our mass media of disinformation to point our attention away from those most responsible for the creating the conditions behind the Fukushima crisis—behind the massive breakdown of technology, ecology, public health, and political economy embodied by this disaster. What happened in the background of this debacle that thrust the employees of TEPCO, a private, for-profit company, into the untenable position assigned them after March 11? What led up to the crisis still unfolding after a predictable tsunami swept over the nuclear waste dumps and the live museum of antiquated nuclear devices assembled in the Fukushima #1 just a hundred and fifty miles north of Tokyo? How could this combination of nuclear dangers been allowed to develop in Japan, one of the most active island earthquake zones on earth?
From the U.S.S. Nautilus to “Atoms for Peace”
The preponderance of Mark I reactors at Fukushima invokes the dawning of the era introduced to the world with the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ending of the Second World War with the atomic attacks on Japan doubled as the opening act of the half-century of world history that had at its bipolar core the conflict pitting the USA against the USSR, capitalism against communism, believers in God against adherents of dialectical materialism. This core conflict dominating the second half of the twentieth century is generally known as the Cold War. This so-called Cold War, however, was in fact very hot for the people of Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, Latin America, and much of Africa. In these theatres of Cold War conflict, army met army with the direct or indirect military involvement of the two mirrored superpowers.
As is now widely understood, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was directed at putting the Soviet Union on its guard. The US government was sending a message to the Soviets that, not only did it possess atomic weapons, but that the commanders of the US Armed Forces were ready, able and willing to use these lethal devices against masses of civilians. What better proof of this position could there be than the actual bombing of the Japanese cities causing the immediate murder of 150,000 individuals and the slow deaths and deformities of many more victims through the infliction of radiation-induced maladies, including epidemics of cancer?
Thus the highest levels of authority in the United States chose to sacrifice scores of Japanese citizens in order to send a message to the Soviet authorities. The US government was demonstrating its determination to contain and push back Soviet power and influence regardless of the fact that Stalin’s forces were largely responsible for the defeat of Hitler’s army in Germany’s grab for Eurasian living space. (19)
In the years following the end of the Second World War, the Cold War was formally born in the passage by Congress in 1947 of the National Security Act. As the US national security state, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), gained enormous new powers, the US Armed Forces and their corporate partners set to work to redirect the technological forces that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The new enemy was to be Josef Stalin’s communist regime in the Soviet Union. The US Navy, which had been excluded from the manufacturing of the atomic bomb in the top-secret Manhatten Project, stepped forward to make its mark in the transformed geopolitics of the era. The US Navy entered the Atomic Age with the initial goal of developing nuclear power plants with sufficient capacity to propel submarines on long underwater voyages.
The primary duty assigned these nuclear-powered submarines would be to carry and, when ordered to do so, launch nuclear-armed missiles aimed at enemy targets. The course of the Second World War had demonstrated the strategic importance of underwater weaponry. The conflict had exposed the limitations of existing technology based on battery-powered locomotion that only permitted submarines to conceal their underwater travels for a maximum of about 20 miles at a stretch.
The Mark I prototype took shape at a military laboratory in Idaho in the early 1950s, where the world’s initial nuclear power plant was assembled, tested and modified in an artificial lake and in the hull of a submarine designed especially for this top secret project. Hyman G. Rickover led the team of technological innovators commissioned by the US Armed Forces and the Atomic Energy Commission. As the project went from success to success this naval officer and electrical engineer was promoted up the ranks to become an admiral. Admiral Rickover was to play a major role in pioneering all design, manufacturing and training facets of the use of nuclear power for the generation of electricity not only on military vessels but in land-based power plants as well.
The Mark I design began to take shape when Rickover accepted the Westinghouse Company’s proposal for a boiling water reactor run by the heat generated from nuclear fission. The core operations of the Mark I turn electricity-producing turbines through the medium of steam. The patents emerging from Westinghouse’s successful bid for the lucrative Navy contract were later purchased and developed by General Electric, the manufacturer of three of the ailing reactors at Fukushima #1 and the designer of all of them. The Hitachi and Toshibe corporations assembled the other reactors using the GE blueprints.
From the design of the propulsion system driving the US nuclear submarines since 1954, to the design of the first civilian atomic power plant at Shippingport Pennsylvania, to 32 of the several hundred nuclear reactors presently running worldwide, the Mark I prototype adopted and developed by Admiral Rickover has been replicated again and again over more than half a century in spite of repeating choruses of serious professional criticisms.
These criticisms became especially intense in the 1970s when several whistle blowers within the nuclear industry resigned, pointing to a variety of structural problems including the vulnerability of the Mark I’s cooling systems to external breakdowns of electrical power. In spite of their criticisms, the lords of the US nuclear industry continued to depend heavily on the Mark I design. There are presently 23 Mark I reactors sprinkled among the 103 nuclear power stations currently running in the United States. The stopping of the flow of electrical power to the Mark I’s cooling systems after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami contributed significantly to the nuclear disaster in Japan. Another criticism mounted by experts in the field had to do with the inadequacy of the Mark I’s containment systems, a problem whose basis in fact is now on public display in the release of many radioactive gases from Japan’s most seriously crippled nuclear plant. (20)
Admiral Rickover was chosen by the US Navy with the objective of integrating the naval division of the US Armed Forces more deeply into the profound realignment of many kinds of power that came about with the introduction of atomic weapons. Very early on Rickover seized on the objective of extending the utilization of nuclear energy not only to the propulsion of naval vessels but also to the large-scale generation of electricity for more general consumption. He was encouraged to move in this direction by a number of allies in the so-called private sector, executives in companies like GE, Westinghouse and General Dynamics. These firms, like the majority of large manufacturing enterprises based in the United States, had expanded exponentially while acting as military partners of the US government during the Second World War. Rickover played a major role in working with his staff to set up the legal structure of the nuclear energy industry in ways that advanced the proprietary interests of the corporate partners that have long been deeply integrated into the core operations of the US Armed Forces.
Admiral Rickover’s approach was very different than that of a powerful coalition seeking to place controls over all facets of atomic energy in the hands of a genuinely international agency whose highest priority would be to keep this source of such vast concentrations of energy inside a tightly circumscribed circle of research and regulation. This coalition, which strongly opposed the overly hasty efforts to apply atomic energy to the generation of electricity, included among its members Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer as well as the controversial Anglo-American globalist, Carroll L. Wilson. In 1946 Wilson became the first general manager of the US-based Atomic Energy Commission.
This faction could claim the attachments of the preponderance of living scientists whose theoretical breakthroughs had been integral to the Manhatten Project’s engineering of the atomic bombs that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This propensity was epitomized by the struggles of Robert Oppenheimer with his own conscience in the light of his awareness of his own role in the process of unleashing such lethal and unpredictable forces on all of humanity. Oppenheimer’s anguish was most famously captured in his public citation of Vishnu’s cry as drawn from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” (21)
In 1953 the course of the Cold War strengthened the hand of the Rickover faction in the struggle over the future of nuclear power. The fact that the Rickover faction was allowed to take over the momentum of the nuclear industry from so many of those whose efforts established the basis of nuclear science is telling. It perhaps illustrated the truth of Albert Einstein adage that “with the splitting of the atom, everything has changed except our way of thinking.” (22)
While the US had monopolized the capacity to apply the power of the atom to warfare in the years immediately following the Second World War, the geopolitics of nature’s deepest sources of energy shifted in 1949 when the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic weapon. In August of 1953 the Soviets detonated the world’s first hydrogen bomb. American Cold Warriors nicknamed the nuclear device Joe 4 after Josef Stalin.
These developments helped accelerate an arms race to the point where, between 1951 and 1953, the US government conducted 37 test explosions of nuclear bombs in the open air. This assertive display of military might was quite rightly generating growing trepidations in North America and throughout the Americas that a serious spread of radioactivity was underway. Beyond the huge public health concerns raised by these tests, such provocative nuclear sword rattling could not help but increase fears about the apparent imminence of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
This rush of new information about military preparation for nuclear warfare was, in the parlance of Madison Avenue, a public relations nightmare. Against this background of growing fear and general unease with the militaristic behavior of both antagonists in the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped to introduce his two-term presidency with his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations on December 8 of 1953. Significantly Eisenhower would end his presidency in 1961 by warning against the rising threat of tyranny posed by various networks of private and public power that he labeled the military-industrial complex. In his “Atoms for Peace” speech, Eisenhower declared that his country’s desire to “find a way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” He proposed to “move out of the dark chamber of horror and into the light” by putting the secrets of the atom “in the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace.” To advance this ideal he proposed to transform “the greatest destructive forces” into “a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.” He continued, “The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability already proved, is here today.” (23)
The following year US nuclear submarine, U.S.S. Nautilus, began its test runs. The Navy’s successful operation of this nuclear powered submarine was widely viewed as a triumph of American technology.
Using Mark I technology, Admiral Rickover quickly expanded his focus beyond submarines to include between 1954 and 1957 the design, construction and testing of the world’s first “civilian” nuclear power plant at Shippingport Pennsylvania.
The building of this land-based project became ground zero of the broader US initiative to implement and lead national and international programs done in the name of applying President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech. Looking back on this history from the perspective of 1985, one of Rickover’s biographers explained the importance of what had taken place in the early years of the demonstration project that introduced the world to so-called civilian atomic reactors at Shippington, Pennsylvania. The following account of the installation’s history appeared in Fusion Magazine in the summer of 1985:
Although small by current standards (60 megawatts), the Shippingport plant had an enormous impact on the development of civilian nuclear technology.
Because it had no military applications (unlike the slightly earlier British reactor at Calder Hall), its design was unclassified. Hundreds of engineers from around the world attended seminars on it given by the Naval Reactors Branch, Westinghouse, and Duquesne [Power and Light Company] during 1954-55, and Westinghouse made available thousands of technical reports on every aspect of the project. Shippingport thus functioned as a school in reactor technology for hundreds of engineers until well into the early 1960s, and the reactor’s design has been the model for more than three fourths of all civilian nuclear reactors produced in the United States and many in foreign countries since that time. (24)
Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech was seized upon by the United States’ Cold Warriors as a major theme of US foreign policy. It provided a blueprint for one aspect of a more overarching US project to integrate US allies or potential US allies into the industrial cycles of US-based corporations and the financial cycles of debt and credit as administered by US-based banking regimes. It provided a blueprint to advance an agenda of Cold War capitalism geared to the special interests of US military hegemony as linked to the special interests of large US businesses and their expanding international networks of consumers, suppliers, partnerships, franchises, technological transfers, and patent arrangements.
As proclaimed in 1955 by the National Security Council, one of the core expressions of the enormous expansion of the US Executive Branch as the primary global agency charged with the formal, informal and covert attacks on communism, “Atoms for Peace will strengthen American world leadership and disprove the Communists’ propaganda charges that the US is concerned solely with the destructive uses of the atom.” (25) A Congressional Committee on Nuclear Energy came up with a similar recommendation in 1956 arguing, “Atomic power must be the most tangible symbol of America’s will to peace through the peaceful atom.” (26)
In South America the US promotion of “Atoms for Peace” led to the early establishment of nuclear power plants in Argentina and Brazil. In the Far East, Taiwan and South Korea were inducted into the nuclear energy club. Japan too would be drawn into the network of polities whose governments were encouraged through access to grants and loans to adopt nuclear energy in the name of “Atoms for Peace.” But, of course, in Japan this course of action ran against inflamed memories and aroused antagonisms of a nation that had been only a few years earlier on the receiving end of American atomic weapons.
Richard Falk, international jurist and special UN rapporteur on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has reflected on the horrors of the Faustian bargains put on offer after the conclusion of the Second World War with two mushroom clouds of death. The fuller meanings of those deals with the devil have now become incarnate in the disaster at the Fukushima #1. In drawing the connections, Falk refers to the US targeting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the greatest single act of state terror in human history.” Perhaps an ascent up the chain of command towards the highest level of executive accountability for the Fukushima debacle will help set in motion the long overdue process of addressing the unaddressed criminality entailed in the US decision to obliterate two densely populated and defenseless Japanese cities. (27)
Television, Anti-Communism, and the Import of the American Nuclear Energy Industry into Japan
The establishment of the nuclear power industry in Japan emerged from the same set of forces that were integral to the establishment and deployment of the Japanese television industry as a medium of American-led anti-communism. This convergence of factors, all taking their queues from the psychological warfare of the Cold War, has run through the history of the US-based and Japan-based megacorporations that have had a hand in designing, manufacturing and installing the industrial infrastructure of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Number One. Figuring prominently among these corporate entities are General Electric and Westinghouse as well as some of Japan’s Zaibatsu-based conglomerates, but especially Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi.
The Zaibatsu-based partners of the American conglomerates epitomize strands of continuity linking the pre and post-WWII political economy of Japan. It was the imperatives of anti-communism that drove the US decision to revive the old Zaibatsu-based structures of productivity and authority that had animated the war machine whose imperial masters had ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Knowledge of this history is crucial to the success of any effort to understand the genesis of the political decisions resulting in the placement of the world’s third-largest nuclear energy industry on one earth’s most earthquake-prone zones.
Many forces combined in the unstable mix of ideological, political, commercial and industrial factors that would explode into tragedy with the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The aggressive anti-communism that was the primary catalyst of this mix can be traced most tellingly through the collaboration linking a US Senator from South Dakota with a police commissioner and war propagandist who extended his media empire in imperial Japan to a broadcasting empire in post-WWII Japan. The primary figure on the US side of the equation was Senator Karl Mundt, a close associate of future US president Richard Nixon. The so-called Mundt-Nixon Bill of 1948 lies near the inception of a growing tsunami of anti-communist initiatives emanating from the imperial capital of Cold-War America.
Senator Mundt was one of the most assertive members of the now-notorious Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Mundt was also was a founder of Voice of America, a US government agency for the dissemination of so-called overt propaganda. As Ian Johnson has written, “Cold War propaganda developed along two tracks, covert and overt. Programs such as the States Department’s support of film, radio, art, and exchange programs, and the Voice of America broadcasts were considered overt propaganda because they could be clearly identified as government efforts. Covert operations ranged from secretly funded magazines to anonymous smear campaigns.” (28)
Senators Mundt and McCarthy shared a preoccupation with putting a spotlight on show business as an alleged hotbed of communist activity. In 1950 in his widely publicized “Vision of America” speech, Senator Mundt gave a new twist to this preoccupation, proposing a strategy of psychological warfare aimed at expanding the reach of television technology with the primary aim of broadcasting idealized pictures of the American way of life. Senator Mundt placed special emphasis on the development of commercial television networks in Turkey, the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan. Drawing on the legacy of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a display of American technological wizardry, Mundt referred to television as a “See-Bomb.” He asserted “Television can put in motion chain reactions for constructive good which rival in their magnitude the destructive consequences of the chain reaction of the A-bomb.” (29)
A radio announcer by the name of Shibata Hidetoshe became the primary intermediary between Senator Mundt’s anti-communist bandwagon in Washington and the obsessive anti-communism of Shoriki Matsutaro, the founder of both Japan’s commercial television industry as well of Japan’s domestic nuclear energy program.
Even before the Admiral Rickover’s team had completed the first so-called “civilian” facility for the generation of atomic energy at Shippingport Pennsylvania, Shoriki got himself named in 1956 as the founding chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission in 1956. Shoriki combined some of the attributes of J. Edgar Hoover with those of William Randolph Hearst in the history of imperial Japan prior to that regime’s defeat in 1945. As a police commissioner, Shoriki was much like the American FBI Chief in the satisfaction he derived from directing the state’s repression and brutalization of communist strikes and protests. As owner of the Yomiuri newspaper, Shoriki promoted the Japanese colonization of Manchuria much like Hearst had done in encouraging the US military to invade the remaining Spanish colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. A contender for mayor of Tokyo in the 1930s, Shoriki displayed his deft populist touch in his organizing of a Japanese tour for Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in 1935. Shoriki followed up this initiative up by founding the Yomiuri Giants baseball team in Tokyo.
Like many of the industrialists, financiers and media moguls rooted in the aristocratic Zaibutsu clans that had directed the channeling of Japan’s prolific productivity into the imperial war machine of Emperor Hirohito, Shoriki was rounded up as a class A war criminal by the occupying army under US General Douglas MacArthur.
The Sugamo prison has come to be regarded by some observers as a kind of gentleman’s hotel where the American occupiers of Japan began to acquaint themselves with the Zaibatsu elites on whom they would come to lean so heavily in the project of building up Japan as a capitalist powerhouse to contain the eastward spread of Soviet influence as well as that of Chinese Communism after 1949. (30) The westward wing of this same policy of containment, one of the primary doctrines of the US anti-communism during that era, proved to be Western Europe, but especially West Germany.
As with the war crimes trials in Tokyo, the war crimes trials at Nuremberg tended to downplay the role of financiers and industrialists in the Nazi horrors. This outcome came about because it was deemed that those who had built up the financial and industrial infrastructure of the Nazi war machine must be encouraged and helped with the task of building the capitalist bulwarks to contain the westward spread of Soviet-backed and Soviet-inspired communism. (31) The transformation of Germany and Japan, the two main Axis opponents of the spread of Soviet-style communism before WWII, into key allies of US-led anti-communist after 1945 forms one of the central phenomena in the entire geopolitical history of the twentieth century.
Shoriki was released from prison in 1947, though he continued to be subject to legal prohibitions that prevented him from holding public office or working at jobs in the Japanese media of mass communications. These kind of restraints, however, evaporated quickly once the Korean peninsula flared up in 1950 as the site of major fighting between the United States and the Chinese Red Army. The ascent of the revolutionary forces of Mao Zedong in 1949, followed by the inception of the Korean War, helped heightened the zealotry of anti-communism within the United States. This development helped fuel the attacks led by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and Karl Mundt against real or imagined communists in positions of power.
The politics of anti-communism was replicated more broadly and more harshly in Japan as almost 30,000 labor organizers, teachers, civil servants and such were stripped of their jobs in an extremely ugly and aggressive Red Purge. (32) The other side of this crackdown saw men like Shoriki Matsutaro unburdened of any and all legal restrictions as the US occupiers prepared to formally hand over the powers of self-government to the people of Japan in the San Francisco Treaty of 1952.
By the time Shoriki was “unpurged” in 1951 many of the elements were already in place for him to apply for and receive the broadcasting license that would him make him the founder of the Nippon Television Network. As Simon Partner has observed, Shoriki’s “brightest credential” in the eyes of his main American backers proved to be his “anti-communist past.” (33) Indeed, Shoriki was far from alone in making the transition from a class A suspect of war crimes in 1945 to a titan of industry and a frontier soldier in the US-led campaign to contain and crush real, imagined or manufactured communists.
Arima Tetsuo has written a Japanese-language book on the role of US anti-communism in the establishment and early operations of Shoriki’s Nippon Television Network. Arima’s rendition of history presents Shoriki pretty much as a front man for an initiative emanating from deep within the American national security of state. He writes
First, various intelligence and information agencies of the United States were involved in the establishment of NTV. There were four groups of people involved. Of course, there were Matsutaro Shoriki, president of NTV and the owner of Yomiuri Newspaper—which had a ten-million circulation—and his private secretary, Hidetoshi Shibata. The second group was the Japan Lobby (American Council on Japan), which consisted of (i) William Castle, former ambassador to Japan and consultant to CIA whose diary is kept at Houghton Library of Harvard University library, (ii) Eugene Dooman, former counselor of Japan and leader of Dooman Group that engaged in psychological warfare with CIA in postwar Japan; and (iii) James Kaufmann, an attorney for RCA, General Electric, etc. He was professor at Tokyo University and taught western laws. CIA transcripts indicated that he was not a CIA agent. He was the top of AP and the Scripps and Howard Group, but he was an adviser to CIA. The fourth group, OSS, an old-time intelligence agency, had James Murphy—number two of OSS and attorney for NTV—and William Donovan, Director of OSS and adviser to MSA (Military Security Act). (34)
Arima goes on to outline the form, content and sources of the television culture developed by Shoriki’s network during the first decade or so of its existence. He writes,
NTV was not planned as a medium for entertainment or for commercialism. It was planned as a medium for propaganda and military communications. Building NTV was a cover of CIA operation to build anti-communist military and propaganda network. It was not Shoriki but the U.S. who made the plan. The U.S. did not help Shoriki build the network; the U.S. used Shoriki to build it. NTV was meant to be a part of a world-wide telecommunication network in the overall scheme of U.S. anti-communist policy.
The CIA and the USIA (the United States Information Agency) provided American TV programs. American films and TV programs occupied Japanese primetime TV until the late 1960s. They played a very decisive role in forming Japanese TV culture. Japanese TV producers and directors learned the know-how from these American TV programs. (Some of them were sent to the US to learn how to produce TV programs through the exchange program sponsored by the USIA.) It was the CIA and USIA that planned and designed Japanese TV culture. (35)
One of the first campaigns mounted by the owner of the Yomiuri newspaper and of the newly-minted commercial television network was to promote in 1955 an exhibit in Tokyo based on the theme of “Atoms for Peace.” With the encouragement and help of his US and Japanese backers, Shoriki thus set himself the task of becoming his country’s most enthusiastic promoter of nuclear power for the generation of the electricity. Of course Shoriki’s present and future customers would require access to large new sources of electrical energy in Japan in order to power their TV sets and the other electrical appliances that would in future years become synonymous with the Japanese economic miracle.
Shoriki’s promotion of the “peaceful” uses of nuclear energy to generate electricity continued a pattern of visits by US celebrities that were organized whenever the entrepreneur had a pet project he wanted to raise in public stature and visibility. Whether Shoriki’s goal was to establish a Japanese baseball team or secure a TV license or promote nuclear energy for the generation of electricity, his publicity tactics were quite consistent. Among the visiting salesmen in his Shoriki’s bid to prepare public opinion for the expansion into Japan of the American nuclear energy industry was John Jay Hopkins, president of General Dynamics, a company involved in the work of the US Naval Reactors branch from the start. Also present in Tokyo for the “Atoms for Peace” exhibit was the famed nuclear scientist, Manhatten Project dynamo, financial wizard and all-round entrepreneur, Ernest O. Lawrence. (36) Lawrence R. Hafstad, a physicist who had worked closely with Admiral Rickover in developing the nuclear power plant for the Nautilus, rounded out the delegation that spoke in Toyko’s Hibya Park. (37)
The “Atoms for Peace” exhibit came in the wake of a major US test of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific that had contaminated with nuclear radioactivity the 23 members of the crew on a fishing boat, the Diago Fukuryu Maru. One of the crew members immediately died and many more became very ill. The episode was widely reported in Japan, where some referred to the debacle as the “second Hiroshima.” The nuclear explosion, code named Operation Castle Bravo, was calculated to be about 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The test bomb proved to have more than twice the force anticipated by weapon’s designers. The menacing news about the incident helped inspire Nevil Shute to write On The Beach, a fictional account of one of the last outposts of life in Australia after the devastation of a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. (38)
The contamination of the Japanese fishing crew helped inspire some of the protests in 1955 by a number of Japanese citizens pointing to the dangers and contradictions lurking behind Shoriki’s promotion of the “Atoms for Peace” event in Tokyo. Nevertheless, through unrelenting salesmanship, including through the deployment of pop culture figures like the carton robot, “Astro Boy,” Shoriki made his newspaper and television empire instrumental in turning public opinion towards at least a begrudging acceptance of nuclear power as a viable way of generating electricity. Of course this course of action acquired considerable momentum of its own accord in a fairly small but densely populated island country with no major deposits of conventional energy sources.
Shoriki’s role in selling nuclear power and then in leading government initiatives to kick start the nuclear industry are explained by Kawabe Ichiro in his brief overview of the history of nuclear disarmament in Japan. He writes
In 1954 a Japanese fishing vessel was caught in a nuclear test carried out by the US in the Bikini Atoll area. This turned public opinion strongly against US. In order to weaken anti-American sentiment, Shoriki Matsutaro, a man who owned the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nihon TV, and had once been classified as an A-class war criminal, set about improving the image of nuclear power. Of course both the US and the Japanese Governments were working toward this end, but whereas the Americans were working in an unofficial capacity, Shoriki’s actions were explicit. Not only did he run advertisements in the newspaper and on TV supporting nuclear power, he became a Member of Parliament in February 1955 and then, as a State Minister, the first chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission which was established in January 1956. For the Japanese Government, promotion of nuclear power generation and supporting the US nuclear weapons policy, were tied together from the start. (39)
Shoriki’s quick transition from Japan’s number one cheerleader for nuclear energy to the job of overseeing and regulating the industry in its most seminal phase of development presents a classic example of the failures of scientific rigor, commercial acumen, respect for the imperatives of public safety, and absences of plain common sense now on full public display in the nuclear disaster at Fukushima #1. The phenomenon of nuclear industry promoters doubling as nuclear industry regulators is deeply endemic of the continuing situation in Japan, but in virtually every nuclearized polity on earth with the possible exception of Germany. Shoriki’s career in post-WWII Japan demonstrates much about the processes for manipulating public opinion that made it possible for nuclear energy systems to be accepted as a primary means of generating electricity for public consumption even in one of the most active earthquake and tsunami zones on earth.
The secrecy attending these regulatory conflicts-of-interest make it highly unlikely that the regulatory authorities in charge of Japan’s 53 nuclear facilities have given a complete public accounting even now of the full extend of the dangers generated by the Sendai earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.
Peace and Liability: Mobilizing to Oppose the Dangers of Nuclear Energy
Any attempt to explain the Japan’s deep integration with the global fortunes of the American nuclear energy industry cannot be made complete without some careful consideration of the role of the United States in creating the Constitution of its former enemy. Drafted in 1947 under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of US Forces in the Occupation of Japan, Article 9 of this document announced, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation, and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential shall never be maintained.”
In 1952 the period of formal occupation of Japan by US Armed Forces was brought to an end in the Treaty of San Francisco. Attending this international agreement was the Japan-US Security Treaty that set out the legal framework for the retention of many US military bases set up in the wake of the Japanese surrender in 1945. The codified renunciation of the instruments of war in Article 9 helped provide a hook of propaganda to be exploited in the process of making Japan the poster child of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. This interpretive thrust found expression in The Atomic Energy Basic Law adopted by the Japanese parliament—the Diet– in 1955. This legislation codified Japan’s intention to “utilize” atomic energy for “the welfare of mankind and the elevation of the national living standard.” It established the legal foundations for the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission, whose first chair was Japan’s most avid media cheerleader of nuclear energy, Shoriki Matsutaro.
A key passage of Chapter I, Article 2 of the Basic Law was written to conform with the content of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. “The research, development and ultilization of nuclear energy,” the provision detailed. “shall be limited to peaceful purposes.” The Japanese nuclear program would “aim at ensuring safety, and shall be performed independently under democratic administration.” The results of information obtained in these endeavors “shall be made public so as to actively contribute to international cooperation.”
As explained by Kawabe Ichiro, the core of the US strategy for Japan after its defeat in the atomic conflagrations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to “revive the old regime which had supported Japanese militarism.” (40) The role of Shoriki as a leading enemy and then a leading friend of the United States is indicative of this pattern. Shoriki retained the momentum of his Japanese version of the “Atoms for Peace” initiative. In doing so he helped direct a saga of industrialization that would make Japan the third biggest host of the nuclear energy industry after the United States and France.
Along the way from Hiroshima to Fukushima, the Japanese government reproduced some of the tactics for promoting nuclear energy as pioneered in the United States by Admiral Rickover and his corporate partners. Between 1963 and 1976, for instance, the US-led nuclear industry sought to advance its interests through an active campaign of public education at the Japan Power Demonstration Reactor. This facility performed much the same functions locally as those that had been initiated at the Shippingport Nuclear Power Station after 1957.
In spite of the all the hype and political clout behind the expansion of the nuclear energy industry in Japan, some parts of Japanese society have thrown up spirited and determined opposition to this thrust of policy starting with protests in 1955 in Toyko’s Hibya Park against Shoriki’s public relations campaign. Sometimes this opposition movement directed its activities to outlawing all uses of nuclear energy as channeled both into the production of nuclear weapons and into the generation of electricity. This broader approach to the issue has consistently been that of, for instance, a powerful Buddhist organization in Japan named Soka Gakkai. In 1973 it collected 10 million signatures aimed as this more comprehensive approach to dealing with the expansion of the industry whose powerful technology was introduced to the world in the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even at the highest echelons of Japanese authority officials have not always bowed to the initiatives thrust their way by imperial Washington and the leading corporate partners of the US Armed Forces. In 1960, for instance, Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato appointed peace activist Okazaki Katsuo as Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations. In 1961 Ambassador Okazaki supported a very contentious resolution of the UN General Assembly entitled the Declaration on the Prohibition of the Use of Nuclear and Thermo-Nuclear Weapons. In doing so Japan became the only so-called “Western” country to oppose the leadership of the United States and join with the majority in the UN’s most inclusive legislative assembly. Japan voted with the majority of UN countries in asserting that the development and use of nuclear arsenals violated key provisions of the UN Charter.
Japan has been the site for the growth of many NGOs—Non-Governmental Organizations– opposed to the activities and expansionary plans of the nuclear energy industry. One such NGO is the Citizens Nuclear Information Center established in Tokyo in 1975. On the day after the Sendai earthquake and tsunami the CNIC issued a press release that included the flowing statement, “Last December the Japanese government began a review of its nuclear energy policy. The review was commenced in the spirit of essentially confirming the existing policy. That approach is no longer viable. The direction of the policy review must be completely reversed. It must be redirected towards developing a policy of phasing out nuclear energy as smoothly and swiftly as possible.” (41)
The initiatives in public education by the CNIC and many other organizations has gradually been turning the tide of public opinion towards the side of conservative caution even before the Fukushima nuclear disaster that was triggered by the predictable earthquake and tsunami of March 11. In 2005, for instance, only one in five of those surveyed believed that nuclear power is safe enough for the construction of new nuclear plants in Japan. (42)
This opposition movement has found one of its most forceful centers of gravity in the campaign to stop the building by the Chugoku Electric Company of the Kaminoseki nuclear energy facility in the Japan’s Seto Inland Sea region. This pristine treasure of indigenous Japanese ecology is abundant in biodiversity. The tactics of those opposed to the project have included hunger strikes, sit-ins, and direct encounters between scores of Iwaishima Islanders and contractors preparing the Kaminoseki site. (43)
The Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plant has been the site of particular contention in recent years. Owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, Rokkasho is a controversial factory where spent nuclear fuel rods are “recycled” so that nuclear waste is reconstituted as turbocharged MOX fuel that includes high concentrations of plutonium. In 2008 the movement to stop the reprocessing enterprise at Rokkasho put thousands of protestors into the streets of Tokyo. They are said to have represented hundreds of groups demanding an end to the intensification of nuclear dangers that come with the so-called “reprocessing” of nuclear waste. The Stop Rokkasho movement makes ample use of music and other artists’ creations. (44)
As Richard Falk has observed in his reflections on the Faustian bargains of the nuclear age, the risks of nuclear energy “if objectively assessed, were widely known for years, yet effectively put to one side.” He continues, “It is the greedy profit-seekers who minimize and suppress these risks, whether in the Gulf of Mexico or Fukushima or on Wall Street, and then scurry madly at the time of disaster to shift responsibility to the victims that makes me tremble as I contemplate the human future.” (45) Falk’s observation about the shifting of responsibility to the victims in times of disaster is tellingly born out by a report in Bloomberg News. On March 23 the news agency reported, “Japan’s taxpayer, not the nuclear industry, will cover most of the cleanup cost from the worst accident since Chernobyl, a financial rescue that may spur moves by other nations to make companies assume more liability.”
It is the employees and officers of the Toyko Power Company, TEPCO, who seemingly still remain the main crisis team to deal with the Fukushima disaster and to interpret its character and scope for the public. According to a report in Bloomberg News, the corporate entity that appears presently to be bearing the bulk of the responsibility is not financially responsible for the full extent of the damages that will be incurred because of what is transpiring at its nuclear plant. TEPCO is apparently liable for the third-party damages resulting from the incident only up to the amount of $2.1 billion. Unfortunately this figure seems small compared to the scope of the disaster that continues to unfold. Bloomberg added, “Should the government declare the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami that flooded its reactors an ‘exceptional’ act of God, the utility may be off the hook in paying compensation that may be demanded by injured workers, farmers and shareholders.” (46)
What is the logic of privatizing a public utility if the company or companies providing the public service do not have to bear the legal liability for assaults on public health and ecological systems resulting from corporate incompetence, fraud, or negligence? How should Japanese citizens take the news that they are held to be collectively liable to bear most of the costs for the damage done by a preventable nuclear catastrophe that is hitting just as they are trying to make it through the very first stages of recovery from the largest earthquake and tsunami in their recorded memory?
While TEPCO apparently has already established its limited corporate liability, the first concern of ARVEDA and GE and many other companies involved in the man-made elements of the disaster has been to defend their products and thereby attempt to avert the prospect of being sued for various forms of malfeasance. On March 18, for instance, GE issued a press release indicating, “The Mark I meets all regulatory requirements and has performed well for over 40 years.” GE added, “The Mark I containment designs were modified in the 1980s to address improvements in the technology and changing regulatory requirements. All these changes required by regulatory authorities have been implemented.” (47)
This pattern of companies seeking to escape legal liabilities for their inventions and production procedures in manufacturing and operating nuclear devices has been clear and consistent from the start of the industry. In commenting on the requirements of Charles Wilson, the CEO of General Electric during the Second World War, an historian of the project to construct the first atomic weapons observed, “GE expected full recovery of all costs incurred in connection with the contract and protection against liabilities, since hazards of ‘an unusual and unpredictable nature’ were involved.” There were to be no exceptions in the seminal phase of the nuclear industry to the uniform “insistence” of corporations that they must be “completely free of liability for their actions.” (48)
The indemnification of private companies from the consequences of accidents in the nuclear energy industry was formalized with the Price-Anderson Act of 1957. It amended parts of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 that established the Atomic Energy Commission. One reason given for making taxpayers the ultimate backstop for potential payouts to those killed or injured by the activities of the corporate agencies of the nuclear energy industry was that no private insurance companies were willing to assume the risks in this line of enterprise. Congress renewed the Price-Anderson Act in 1967, 1975, 1988, and 2005. Its most recent extension in 2005 was legislated to run for twenty additional years. (49)
The Price Andersen Act provided a legal prototype that was basically exported along with American nuclear technology to those countries that accepted US leadership in this field. The legacy of the way the American “Atoms for Peace” initiative was absorbed into the industrialization of Japan after WWII helps explain why those masses of citizens attempting to cope with the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in their history are left holding the bulk of the liability for a preventable, or at least partially preventable, nuclear accident whose full horrible extent remains unclear.
Extremes of Laissez-Faire
In Bailout Nation Barry Ritholz attempts to explain the genesis of the financial contagion that moved from Wall Street to the global economy beginning in 2008. Like most of those who have attempted to diagnose the financial debacle, Ritholz attributes the economic meltdown to the excesses of deregulation that opened the way for various sorts of executive plunder, incompetence and fraud to run rampant. Ritholz turns to history to demonstrate that there was every reason for executives, but especially those in the financial services sector, to expect that governments would draw on taxpayers’ money to save key institutions from going under when calamity inevitably struck.
Like the financial meltdown and BP’s industrial toxification of the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster seems like yet another dramatic example of an increasingly familiar pattern. The nuclear crisis in Japan illustrates yet again what happens when the delivery of public services, including the provision of public utilities, are passed to the so-called private sector. It illustrates what happens when these and other key businesses are left unregulated and when the public is left to bear the consequences and pay the costs of enormous corporate transgressions. Again and again, it seems, profits are privatized whereas the attending costs of doing business in terms of deteriorating public health, citizens’ savings, social cohesion, and ecological equilibrium are simply swallowed or socialized as the debt of taxpayers to be carried over long periods of time. “Let posterity pay” seems to have become the motto of our unstable and unsustainable system of economic relationships.
Ritholz points to Ronald Reagan as “the intellectual father of the modern radical deregulatory movement.” (50) Significantly, Reagan learned and cultivated his philosophy of extreme deregulation of business when he was employed between 1954 and 1962 as the primary television spokesperson of the General Electric Company. During this period he was the host of General Electric Theatre, a highly-rated drama broadcast weekly by the CBS Television Network.
As GE’s most high-profile representative to the American public, Reagan immersed himself deeply in the corporate culture of his patrons. GE’s leadership in applying nuclear technology to military operations and civilian life, together with the company’s deep involvement in the psychological warfare of the Cold War, extended broadly throughout the informal empire of the United States. As we have seen, some of GE’s products and methodologies proved to have particular significance for the development of Japan. (51)
Ronald Reagan began to attract attention as an effective anti-communist politician when he backed Barry Goldwater’s run for the US presidency in 1964. During that presidential campaign he warned of the “government invasion of public power” and cautioned against “abandoning the American Revolution” with the view that “a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives better for us than we can plan for ourselves.” In moving from the job of Governor of California in 1966 to that of President of the United States in 1981, Reagan perfected his frequent appeal that “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” (52)
Today it is the lack of strong, accountable government that has been put on clear display in the prelude to, and genesis of, the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Where in the Army Corps of Engineers now that we need them? Where is General Electric? Where is the US Navy to help in the mass evacuation that the gravity of this emergency seems to demand? Where are the investigative reporters we need to look behind the façade presented by Tokyo Power Company to seek answers from those really responsible for creating the underlying conditions of this crisis? Where is the US government that bears an enormous part of the responsibility for Japan’s transition from the agony of Hiroshima to the agony of Fukushima?
How would Admiral Rickover view this outcome at Fukushima of the technological legacy derived from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? While the chief engineer of the Nautilus and of the Shippingport nuclear energy plant helped set the course towards the proliferation of so-called “civilian” nuclear energy plants, in his later years this iconic figure of the military-industrial complex questioned the wisdom of his former course. In a presentation to a Committee of Congress in 1982, Admiral Rickover reflected,
Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible… Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it… I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. Have I given you an answer to your question? (53)
I think Admiral Rickover answered his own question well. But what about the big questions I asked of you, the reader, near the beginning of this essay? My question was as follows: How could this combination of nuclear dangers been allowed to develop in Japan, one of the most active island earthquake zones on earth? Hopefully this essay begins to suggest some answers to this important question.
(1) Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi, “Greater Danger Lies in Spent Fuel Rods Than in Reactors, The New York Times, 17 March, 2011
(2) Interview with Robert Alvarez on the Dangers from Depleted Nuclear Fuel, Living On Earth, 18 March, 2011. Robert Alvarez et. al., “Reducing the Hazards of Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States, Global Security, Vol. 11, no. 1, 3003, 1-60
(4) Carrol L. Wilson, “Nuclear Energy: What Went Wrong? Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, Vol. 35, June, 1979, 15
(5) Mike Whitney, “Fukushima ‘Chernobyl Moment’ Could Be Fast Approach, op ed news, 26 March, 2011
(6) Yuri Kageyama and Mari Yamaguchi, “More Obstacles Impede Crews in Japan Nuke Crisis,” Associated Press, 27 March, 2011
(7) Stephen Leahy, “Japan Nuke Disaster Could Be Worse Than Chernobyl, IPS, 17 March, 2011
Keith Harmon Snow, “Nuclear Apocalypse in Japan, Lifting the Veil of Nuclear Catastrophe and Cover-Up,” Conscious Being, 18 March, 2011
(8) California Fire Department, “Japan: Fukushima Nuclear Plants Reaching Critical Levels Could Explode,” 15 March 2011
(11) AREVA, “Quote of the Moment,” March 18, 2011
(12) Rodney P. Carlisle and Joan M. Zenzen, Supplying The Nuclear Arsenal: American Production Reactors, 1942-1992, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1996)
(13) See International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,” Nuclear Reactors,” Arms Control Association, U.S. Civilian Nuclear Reactor to Produce Weapons Material, November, 2003
(17) John McCormick, “Nuclear Illinois Helped Shape Obama’s View of on Energy Dealing with Exelon,” Bloomberg News, 23 March, 2011
(18) Leuren Moret, “Nuclear Power Safety in US— not any safer than in Japan,” 16 March, 2011, Press TV
(19) Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York: Vintage, 1996)
(20) Cathy Schwartz, “Reactors at Heart of Japanese Nuclear Crisis Raised Concerns as Early as 1972, TFD News, 15 March, 2011
(24) Robert Zubrin, “Admiral Rickover and the Nuclear Navy,” Fusion, Vol. 7, number 4, July/August, 1985, 14
(25) Cited in Daniel Wit, “The United States and Japanese Atomic Power Development,” World Politics, Vol. 8, no. 4, July, 1956, 489
(26) Congressional Committee cited in ibid, 490
(27) Richard Falk, “Learning From Disaster? After Sendai,” 15 March 2011
(28) Ian Johnson, A Mosque in Munich: Nazis the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010), 40
(29) Simon Partner, Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 80
(30) Jim Twitch Little, “Getting Away With Murder,” 3 parts, Combatsim.com
(31) Hall, Earth into Property: Colonization Decolonization, and Capitalism (Montreal: McGill –Queen’s University Press ,2010), 611-629
(32) Tetsui Hirata, “Japan’s Red Purge: Lessons from a Saga of Suppression of Free Speech and Thought,” ZNet, 10 July, 2011
(33) Partner, Assembled in Japan, 83
(37) Hafstad’s Obituary is published in The New York Times, 22 October, 1993
(38) Yamazaki Masakatsu and Okuda Kenzo, “Pacifying Anti-American Sentiments: Introducing Nuclear Reactors in Japan after the Bikini Incident,” Journal of History of Science. Japan, Vol. 43, 2004-2006, 83-93
(39) Kawabe Ichiro, Nuclear Disarmament in Japan, New Internationalist Japan, No. 100, June, 2008, 32-52
(41) CNIC, Statement re Nuclear and Earthquake Disaster Unfolding in Japan, 12 March, 2011,
(42) Yale Environment 360, “Japan’s Once-Powerful Nuclear Industry Under Siege,” Reuters, 18 March, 2011
(43) Kaminoseki: Nuclear Power Plant, Human Rights and Biodiversity
(45) Richard Falk, “Learning From Disaster? After Sendai,” 15 March 2011
(46) Natalie Obiko Pearson and Carolyn Bandel, “Atomic Cleanup Costs Goes to Japan’s Taxpayers, May Spur Liability Shift,” Bloomberg News, 23 March, 2011
(47) Agence France Press, “GE Defends Nuclear Plant Design,” 18 March, 2011
(48) Stephen I. Schwartz, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940 (Washington: The Brookings Instiution, 1998), 357
(49) The Encyclopedia of Earth, Price-Anderson Act of 1957, United States
(50) Barry Ritholz, Bailout Nation:How Greed and Easy Money Captured Wall Street and Shook the World Economy (Hoboken N.J.: Wiley, 2009), 134
(51) Thomas W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan, The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)
(52) Ronald Reagan cited in Hall, Earth into Property, 743-745