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Can capitalism keep the lights on?

The claim that the crisis at the Fukushima power plant is a Japanese problem because they foolishly built nuclear reactors on an earthquake fault is fatally flawed. As climate change brings more and more extreme weather events, there are many other reactors at risk, from inundation by rising sea levels to damage from hurricanes.

What can happen as a result can be seen from the deterioration in the situation at Fukushima, with continual leaks of dangerous radiation into the air, sea and soil. UN nuclear monitors have urged the Japanese government to expand the evacuation zone round the plant from 20km to 40km. The UK and US governments have told their citizens living in Japan to move at least 80km away from the plant.

Emissions of radioactive iodine and caesium, the isotopes most readily absorbed by the human body, are rising towards the levels that followed the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Austrian researchers using a worldwide network of radiation detectors have found iodine-131 at daily levels 73% of those seen at Chernobyl, and caesium-137 at 60%. Researchers are still trying to assess how many new cancer cases have been caused by caesium released at Chernobyl.

Iodine causes thyroid cancer and caesium builds up in the bones, remaining in the body for up to 30 years. Levels of radioactive iodine in seawater off-shore from the Fukushima plant rose by 25% in one day and are now 4,385 times the legal limit. As the concentration increases, so the affected area spreads. A ban on fishing 20km offshore won’t be enough.

The Japanese government says it will consider the UN’s advice about expanding the exclusion zone, but that it doesn’t seem urgent. Citizens disagree, with big anti-nuclear protests taking place on the streets of Tokyo and other cities.

The plant’s owners, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) have announced that all four reactors will have to be decommissioned and the company cannot survive this disaster. Behind the scenes, the Japanese government is considering nationalising the company.

As a result, Japanese taxpayers will have to cover the cost of decommissioning and the massive clean up operation. Radiation levels around the plant mean crops and milk will not be useable for many years and it could be decades before it is safe for refugees to return to the area.

Many countries have begun to rethink their nuclear future, including Britain according to coalition deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. But without nuclear power, capitalism faces a massive gap in energy supply.

The response is not to immediately invest in renewable energy however – it is the exact opposite. For example, the Spanish government has slashed its subsidies for solar power, as part of its cuts programme and in response to pressure from big fossil-fuel generating companies Iberdrola, Endesa and Gas Natural.

Instead, the rush is backwards, to the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel. The Obama administration has just given the go-ahead for an expansion in coal mining on federal land, enough to raise the country’s annual climate pollution by more than half. And major oil companies, facilitated by governments, are pushing ahead with the polluting process of extracting shale oil from tar sands.

As energy supplies dwindle, the poorest will pay the price, with rising fuel bills and higher prices for basics such as food and clothes. Capitalism is struggling to sustain “business as usual” from the planet’s dwindling energy resources, and now the question is, can it even keep the lights on? There is clearly no solution within the current economic and political framework of production of energy and commodities for profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
31 March 2011

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