From Hiroshima to Fukushima


The earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan on 11 March at 8.9 on the Richter scale was one of the worst ever recorded. The tragedy of the tens of thousands of dead and the hundreds of thousands made homeless is almost mind-numbing. But even before the next aftershock strikes the country other questions are being posed. This natural disaster is on the brink of being followed by a man-made sequel. With two explosions in three days at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and other plants threatened with reactor meltdowns the whole question of nuclear power in Japan is at issue. Why is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world home to 53 nuclear power plants making it the world’s third nuclear energy power?

The normal answer is like that given by David Pilling in the Financial Times (14 March)

As a resource-starved nation, it has an almost pathological, and not entirely unreasonable, fear of being cut off from essential supplies in a dangerous world.

A single Chernobyl produced an increase in radiation, and later in cancer, on a large (and as yet not fully acknowledged) scale around the world. Currently all six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are experiencing potential meltdown problems. And there are two other large nuclear power plants in the earthquake zone. The Japanese nuclear industry and government have poor history of telling the truth about radiation leaks. In fact we have been here before in Japan. As Pilling also tells us

At least we had a low-key dress rehearsal. In July 2007, an earthquake measuring a then-big-sounding 6.8 on the Richter scale jolted the enormous Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant near Niigata in northern Japan. It subsequently emerged that the facility, one of the biggest in the world, had not been designed to take an earthquake of anything like that magnitude. One of the reactors was shaken by a jolt nearly two and a half times more powerful than it had been built to withstand.

And yet Pilling tells us that it is “not entirely unreasonable” for the Japanese government to put not only its own citizens at risk but also those of the rest of the planet. In 1986 we entitled our article on Chernobyl “Nuclear Russian Roulette” but the really reckless gamble is in Japan.

Imperialist Imperatives

Japan has always had a worry about its lack of natural resources (even though until recently it was self-sufficient in coal). This led to Japan’s wars with China (1895), Russia (1905), its annexation of Korea (1911) and its invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The best example of all was the Second World War. After Japan invaded the rest of China in 1937 the US cut off Japan’s oil supplies. For four years Japan struggled on. The Japanese Imperial Army, by now running the country, decided on the ultimate gamble. They would knock out the US Pacific Fleet in one blow and then go on to occupy Indonesia and the rest of the Pacific islands thus gaining access to oil and other raw materials. The fact they would also have to defeat the British and the Dutch Empires in Asia to achieve this also gets a small mention in their policy documents.


This was the background to Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The gamble failed within six months (at Midway Island in June 1942 the entire Japanese aircraft carrier force was sunk). The US had the small matter of fighting in Europe before they could deal with a Japan which was simply awaiting its turn. One slight complication arose from this delay. By the time the US came to finish off Japan the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union was beginning to fracture. USA imperialism was already worrying about how far West the Red Army had got in Europe. Now President Truman was worried that when the USSR entered the war in the East, Manchuria, Korea and China would fall into Stalin’s hands. As Richard Rhodes so clearly demonstrated in The Making of the Atomic Bomb the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not to save US lives alone but mainly to pre-empt Russia’s entry into the war in the East (which Stalin had promised would take place on 9 August 9 1945). Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August, Nagasaki on 8 August. (1)

You might have thought that the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have put nuclear power out of the equation in Japan. Not a bit of it. After Japan finally signed a peace treaty with the US and put itself inside the US Empire in 1951, a programme of nuclear research began. Even as the death of Hiroshima victims from leukaemia mounted the state was set on the course towards energy from nuclear power. As Japan became one of the power houses of the global economy it demanded more sources of energy, and in the post-war world this meant oil. Japan depended by this time on imports for 85% of its energy needs at just the point the global cycle of capitalist accumulation was entering its downward phase in 1971. In the US this was signalled by the removal of the dollar from the gold standard and led to a plunge in its value. This in turn boosted the oil price since oil producers saw a massive drop in their real income. Fuel insecurity became a global watchword (and it has not gone away if we look at the rival schemes to divert the energy resources of Central Asia to this or that port) (2). Japan with its industrial output increasing and its lack of resources was more vulnerable than most. Besides quietly supporting the apartheid regime by leasing empty goldmines to store oil in for the future (so much more stable than the Middle East!) the “not unreasonable” solution was to turn to nuclear power.

A Rational World?

But what is reasonable in capitalist terms does not stand up to scrutiny by more objective measures. We live in a world made up of nation states. A “dangerous” world according to the FT quote above. It is dangerous because capitalism is today in its imperialist stage in which nation states fight each other (sometimes in a hidden rivalry, sometimes in open war) to garner the world’s resources. In such a world it may seem reasonable to build nuclear power stations in the most seismically unstable places on the planet. We have deliberately not entered here into the debate about nuclear energy since no rational discussion can take place under capitalist conditions. Where there are profit motives or nationalist agendas the debate is always distorted. We however take the nuclear lunacy in Japan as one more proof that this imperialist system with its wars and irrational policies is not consistent with the future needs of humanity. A really “reasonable world” will have no national states, no imperialist rivalry, no putting profit before people and no more ruinous wars. But this will only come about when the world working class abolish the capitalist system of production on which all this irrationality is founded.


(1) For more on this see

(2) There are many examples on our website but this one refers to previous article. See


I travelled a bit in the old communist Eastern Europe and bad British private businesses have nothing on unhelpful and difficult shop staff in state run shops. Supposedly they were “democratically accountable” but that was a joke. Changing banks or ultities because of bad service or high charges wasn’t just difficult, it was impossible.

The Japanese company Tepco is briliant for consumers. It has "done wonders" in supplying constant electricity over the years but "it has shoddy history of cover ups and ... found to have routinely lied about safety data" (Tepco makes Lehman seem a mere bagatelle Financial Times 14 April 2011). In fact it is a monopoly and like all such is in a cartel backed by the state. Eastern Europe was neither democratic nor socialist and what we are aiming for is an entirely different kind of society. Not the lie that the Stalinsts of the East and capitalists of the West both peddle; that the old Stalinist system was "communism"