Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nuclear Yakuza?

Mr. Ishizawa, 55, raced to the plant’s central gate. But a security guard would not let him out of the complex. ...“Show me your IDs,” Mr. Ishizawa remembered the guard saying, insisting that he follow the correct sign-out procedure. ... “What are you saying?” Mr. Ishizawa said he shouted at the guard. He looked over his shoulder and saw a dark shadow on the horizon, out at sea, he said. He shouted again: “Don’t you know a tsunami is coming?”
Mr. Ishizawa, who was finally allowed to leave, is not a nuclear specialist; he is not even an employee of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the crippled plant. He is one of thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries, lured by the higher wages offered for working with radiation. Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency
This harrowing account came from an excellent NY Times article which recounted similar to an account I blogged about earlier, in which workers were trapped inside the Fukushima reactor building as the tsunami approached.   What is remarkable about this article is that is revealed that almost 90% of the people working at Fukushima and all of Japan's nuclear power plants are unskilled temp. workers.   Underpaid and assigned the most dangerous jobs, these workers appear to be treated as "disposable".   Fifty have been diagnosed with leukemia and other cancers and recognized as deserving compensation, according to the NY Times article. Others may not be so recognized and still others may not be yet diagnosed.   Amazingly, when these workers tried to form a union, their leaders were beat up by thugs, a la some mafia/yakuza gangster movie.

The article points out how this situation is not only a disservice to these workers' rights, but also a serious safety issue.   The picture painted is astonishing when one thinks of the role of nuclear power in a hyper-modern society like japan. However, this whole picture makes a lot of sense from the corporate point of view.  It doesn't take much thought to realize the profit advantages of such low status workers.

On Friday I attended a presentation at SF State in which I heard from three Russian experts on Chernobyl, as well as got updates on Fukushima.    Testimony from Dr. Muchmediarova was most striking to me.  A biomedical expert called in to examine the radiological effects of Chernobyl on Pripyat and environs, she described seeing mutated trees with abnormal growths and enormous leaves.  She also gave very specific information on protecting humans from radiation dangers, which, to my relief corroborated what I've shared on this blog regarding Iodine, Cesium & Strontium.  The organizer of this event, SFSU Professor Phil Klasky, reminded us of the Iroquois maxim to take actions with the Seventh Generation in mind.  But when he mentioned that radioactive waste remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years, even the Iroquois seemed short-sighted!  If we are going to have fission plants producing waste, we need to be thinking about their effects on the 200th generation, or 500th.

This makes it clear in my mind that nuclear reactors cannot safely be put in the hands of corporations.  I'm not making (here) an argument that corporations are evil or inherently unhelpful to society.  Its just that the quarterly profit-driven nature of a corporation (and their short lifespans in the face of bankrupcy) is simply inherently at odds with fundamental facts of nuclear reactions (eg Plutonium's 24,000 year half life), and their effects on human, and other biology (eg. decadal timescale for getting thyroid cancer from I-131).     The only social structures which have any chance of persisting on radiological timescales are *stable* governments.    To call for nuclear power plants to be run by government, not corporations, is hardly "nationalization" because the liabilities of nuclear plants are already nationalized.   In the US, no nuclear plant can get insurance, so the government provides it at a huge subsidy.  Also nuclear plants are only liable for the first $12.6 billion in damages, the rest of the tab is picked up by US citizens.   This is hardly corporate capitalism, and indeed has been called "nuclear socialism".


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