Life in a Fukushima world

Life in a Fukushima world

The focus of sovereign intervention in response to the nuclear meltdowns since 3/11 risks long-term consequences for short-term gains, writes Adam Broinowski.

The meltdowns of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) since the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 (3/11) have exposed not only the dangers of nuclear power but the visibility of the power structure that supports it.

The focus of sovereign intervention has demonstrated the major priorities of this power structure, while local responses have sought to increase public knowledge of the nuclear industry and the health dangers from radiation exposures. Given the myriad factors in play, it is useful to consider the disaster in terms of immunity.

Three main forms of immunity are applicable to the disaster. First, is a biological immunity of the commons (social and ecological immunity), in relation to radioactive contamination dispersed from the ruptured power station. Second is a political and economic form of immunity, which reflects the interests of a transnational ‘nuclear village’ (international institutional and local experts, bureaucrats from multiple levels of government including foreign governments, and executives from transnational corporations and media outlets). Third is a military form of immunity, which overlaps the first two, and is informed by a strategic logic of national defence (and nuclear power).

Biological immunity

Public responses to radioactive contamination dispersed into the commons can be touched on through the film Kibō no kuni (Land of hope 2012)(poster), by Japanese filmmaker Sono Shion, about the explosion of a nuclear power plant after a large earthquake. The film is set in a fictional town, Oba, 20 kms from the plant in ‘Nagashima’ prefecture in the Chūgoku region.


The film is framed as a ‘war’, in the sense that, in response to an invisible enemy, the people of Oba and other towns are divided, mobilised and evacuated according to orders from central command.

The film focuses on three relationships that represent three life stages—coupledom, childrearing and retirement. Each represents a different response to the danger of radiation exposure: voluntary suicide to preserve an attachment to inherited traditions; self-protection through self-education and voluntary exile; and remaining in the area to wait and see. In this framing, there seems little option for those who seek to do otherwise than accept the reality of life with the possibility of radiation contamination.

But one moment, in which retiree Chieko Ono dances the Tankō bushi (miner’s dance), and another, in the opening scene of Land of hope in which Mitsuru Suzuki and Yōko ride a motorbike along a road lined with huge poles carrying electricity to the city, allude to a legacy of struggle between local community and central authority in a history of expropriation since Meiji industrialisation.

Though not widely enough known, decades of research into radiation effects on living organisms have shown that ionising radioactive particles are misrecognised by metabolic systems. The distortion of cellular structures and functions through inhalation and ingestion causes chronically weakened immune systems, accelerated ageing, and the production of cancers, leukaemia, non-cancerous illnesses, fertility problems, early mortality and congenital malformations.

Given that nuclear reactors release toxic emissions even when operating normally, we see how peripheral communities which host nuclear reactors provide a buffer zone to absorb the violence of capital accumulation for centralised power.

Political and economic immunity

The Fukushima nuclear crisis has exposed the extensive interdependency of the transnational ‘nuclear village’ (genshiryoku mura) and sovereign power of Japan. Against majority public opinion, the Abe government reversed the plan to phase-out nuclear power by 2030, and pushed for nuclear rfestarts and nuclear exports as a central pillar of its Basic Energy plan.

The new plan prioritised the protection of investors’ confidence in the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), in nuclear power-related and construction industries, and in ‘Japan’s brand’. At the same time, the plan adopted a minimalist approach to compensation for damages from loss of land and livelihood, and for personal health claims. It manipulated regulatory safety levels for radiation, permitted subcontracting of ‘clean-up’ work to the most vulnerable, redistributed radioactive waste (transport, recycling, incineration, decontamination) and legalised the discharge of the waste into the Pacific Ocean, creating more contaminated food and water.

While sharing nuclear waste, the government controlled the public narrative through such methods as spreading uncertainty, encouraging false assurance, and delay through ineffective ‘decommissioning and remediation’ programs. Other methods have included tourism drives for local produce, and the capture and classification of medical data on health conditions to control its dissemination (punishable by law). Correlations between illness and radiation have been repeatedly denied despite spikes in unusual forms. So, while protecting the immunity of the transnational nuclear village, the burden of proof regarding safety and health from radiation exposure has been shifted to the individual citizen. The real violence of the disaster has been abstracted while a ‘creative’ process of capital accumulation has been concretised.

The Fukushima DNPP remains in a highly vulnerable condition as a result of re-criticality—a nuclear term that refers to the balance of neutrons in the system —caused by the non-containment of the melted nuclear fuel, and of seismic movement and soil liquefaction. Its breached reactors also continue to contaminate the air and leak melted nuclear fuel into groundwater and the Pacific Ocean. But there is another aspect that has guided this sovereign intervention, while receiving comparatively little attention.

National/military immunity

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, realists in security circles in Japan have voiced concern the the US military draw-down in East Asia could make an extended US nuclear deterrent less credible and Japan more vulnerable. This was the year of the Persian Gulf war, in which Japan committed its Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to ‘regional deterrence’ excercises and began to integrate its weapons technology with the United States.

After 3/11, even before the return of the Abe administration in late 2012, several high-level politicians – former Defence Minister Morimoto Satoshi and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru – referred to the commercial nuclear program, including plutonium stockpile production, as a tacit nuclear deterrent ‘in the eyes of other nations’. This logic attached commercial nuclear power to national defence.

It is not a secret that Japan has long considered procuring tactical nuclear weapons as long as they could be justified as the minimal force necessary for national defence. Although a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Japan has the fourth largest stockpile of ‘civilian’ plutonium and the largest stockpile of any non-nuclear weapons state. It is claimed that Japan’s adherence to a costly nuclear reprocessing program (closing the nuclear fuel cycle) is to obtain ‘energy autonomy’. But achieving this could also make Japan invulnerable to energy sanctions, making it more feasible to leave the NPT and divert its plutonium into producing nuclear-tipped missiles.

The JSDF Anti-Ballistic Missile System (ABMS) has been developed to be ‘interoperable’ within the extended US ‘global missile shield’ and US global nuclear strike force. One factor in Abe’s collective security shift is to permit the use of this system. In fact, the ABMS is designed not to be defensive but ‘offensive’. Given the catastrophic destruction from a nuclear exchange, the actual use of a nuclearised capability could hardly stand up to the sovereign duty to protect the immunity of the people.

When exorbitant and long-term security preparations such as these are compared to the level of organised response to the ongoing nuclear disaster and the present and future public health crisis it poses, we see clear contradictions between the sovereign protection of biological immunity of the commons and political, economic and military immunities.

Land of hope responded to 3/11 with subtle references to war (community division and mobilisation), colonial history, and forms of illness. It also presaged, in the figure of a pregnant woman seeking to shield herself from radiation, an unstable future for those who are very new to the world or are yet to be born.

The misidentification of this real threat may strengthen a transnational complex of sovereign power in the short term, but the gains will prove shortlived. In this sense, we might see sovereign responses to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi as a false immunity. The question is do we recognise it?

Main photo:
Fukushima I nuclear power plant before the 2011 explosion (Wikimedia Commons).

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