Yves here. This post by Gaius not only reports on the latest rumors surrounding the Fukushima clean up (such as it is) but also the huge danger the site poses to Japan and the US if it is not stabilized.
Like most things in Japan, if the yakuza really are in charge of the remediation, it may not be what it seems. Cynically, Tepco has done such a terrible job that it’s hard to see how anyone could do worse. But the status of the yakuza is not exactly the same as the mafia. Those who are current please correct me if my information is stale but the yakuza aren’t so much a crime organization as an officially sanctioned group in charge of illegal rackets. That may sound like a distinction that is not a difference, but it actually is different. The yakuza have a deal with the police. They were allowed to run prostitution and gambling rings (I’m not sure exactly what other gigs they run, for instance, whether they provide “protection” services at docks) but the quid pro quo was that they keep hard drugs out of Japan. They were allowed to take any measures necessary to stamp out competing crime groups that tried to bring drugs to Japan. So the yakuza are a crime franchise.
Now I actually can see some logic in having the yakuza in. I’ve read (and this is where readers can help, my recollection may be incorrect) that a big reason the site has not been cleaned up is that certain necessary operations would kill whoever attempted them. Only the yakuza could take people and have them do dangerous work under duress with inadequate disclosure about danger (although you’d have to be an idiot not to know that this was somewhere between risky and potentially fatal; it’s also not impossible that a few were people destined to be killed who are told if they cooperate and work at the plant, their families will be taken care of). This way, the government gets its conscript workers to perform deadly tasks and pretends it doesn’t know what is happening.
Of course, the yakuza involvement could just be garden variety profiteering, but Fukushima has already been a massive embarrassment to the government as well as a an obvious and continuing danger to the health, even survival, of the population. And even if the the government needed the yakuza to “recruit” Fukushima workers, it still runs the risk that the yakuza makes a hash of the job on an operational level. Nevertheless, it seems inconceivable that officials would let Fukushima get even more out of control by letting the yakuza play a major role unless they were doing some sort of dirty work that the government or Tepco could not do openly itself.
One other issue (and I hope Clive and others who’ve worked in Japan will provide more color): Gaius derides the Fukushima mess as neoliberal corruption and cronyism. But that’s applying a Western frame of reference to a very different model. Japan has long been a mercantilist nation, with the government setting industrial policy and picking national champions, so deep connections between the state and the private sector is a long-standing norm. There were some good things about that approach. For instance, finance was seen as a tax on industry. Highly profitable banks were seen as a bad thing and Japanese banks had very low returns compared to ones in the rest of the world. It really was the “banks as utility” model until America screwed it up for them (the US insisted Japan deregulate its banking industry rapidly in the early 1980s. I can give you long stories on how far behind the Japanese banks were back them. The BoJ deliberately stoked an asset bubble to encourage consumption, another outcome the US wanted. Nice having a military protectorate you can push around).
The real problem is (and I hate to resort to stereotypes, but they can fit) Japanese are particularly flat-footed when situations move beyond scenarios they’d planned for (not that we score well either, as Hurricane Katrina attests). While Japanese as individuals can act decisively, all sorts of power dynamics really get in the way of taking action when Seriously Bad things happen and larger groups need to improvise.
Finally, this post includes some commentary from Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicott. Be warned that some consider them to be unduly alarmist, so I’d welcome any threat level calibration from knowledgeable readers .
Here’s your bulk-update of Fukushima news. In brief:
▪ The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the Fukushima nuclear plant, will delay plans to remove the 400+ tons of damaged nuclear fuel rods from the tilted, leaking Reactor 4 fuel chamber in order to do some “testing.”
▪ Top Japanese-Canadian environmental scientist and writer says, “I’ve seen a paper which says it’s bye-bye Japan” — and we should evacuate North America’s west coast if Reactor 4 goes up.
▪ The TEPCO site is so unmanaged that it’s crawling with Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and frightened Yakuza-controlled contract employees.
And a bonus episode: See why this is the classic neoliberal clusterchuck answer to a classic good government–public policy problem. The details of each of these stories are below.
TEPCO to Delay Work on Fukushima Reactor 4 Fuel Rods for “Up to Two Weeks”
TEPCO was due to start work removing more than 1500 fuel rods (most of them spent but highly radioactive, some “fully loaded”) from the damaged fuel rod storage pool 50 feet above-ground in the Reactor 4 building. (That’s Reactor 4 in the image just below, as it appeared after the earthquake and tsunami had done their work.)
Apparently the international concern has gotten to TEPCO, or at least, has gotten to the Japanese government, who had been — up to this point — giving their corrupt friends at TEPCO a free hand.
Via Kyodo News (my emphasis):
TEPCO to conduct test for Fukushima No. 4 unit fuel removal
Tokyo Electric Power Co. [TEPCO] will conduct a test for nuclear fuel removal at the No. 4 reactor building at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant, delaying the start of the actual fuel removal operation by up to two weeks, sources close to the matter said Monday [November 3].
The operator of the plant, crippled in the March 2011 quake and tsunami disaster, planned to start removing nuclear fuel from a cooling pool at the reactor building as early as next Friday [November 8].
The decision comes after a government-affiliated nuclear safety agency called for an initial test operation, including transporting a protective fuel cask from the storage pool to another pool in a different building about 100 meters away for more stable conditions for cooling spent fuel, the sources said.
Two weeks from November 8 is November 21 (another Friday), though things could start popping (sorry, happening) earlier. Let’s see how that test goes. In my dreams, and Harvey Wasserman’s, it would be broadcast live.
I mentioned TEPCO’s corrupt friends above. How corrupt? Keep reading.
Noted Scientist and Science Presenter David Suzuki: “Could be Bye-Bye Japan”
The calls from knowledgeable science and media people — those not affiliated with an apparent neoliberal (privatized anti-regulation) protection racket — to put this situation under international control are coming fast and thick. I covered many of them in an earlier post, including industry engineer Arnie Gundersen and Dr. Helen Caldicott, both of whom are very very worried.
We’re always being told these technologies are fool-proof. But what is a fool-proof technology? It’s a technology free of fools…
Fukushima is the most terrifying situation I can imagine. You ask what can we do. First of all you have got a government that is in total collusion with TEPCO, the energy company. They’re lying through their teeth [emphasis his]…
Three out of the four plants were destroyed in the earthquake and the tsunami. The fourth one has been so badly damaged that the fear is, if there’s another earthquake of a 7 or above [on the Richter scale], that that building will go and then all hell breaks loose. And the probability of a 7 or above earthquake in the next three years is over 95 per cent….
They don’t know what to do. And the thing we need is to get an international group of experts to go in with complete freedom to do what they suggest….
I have seen a paper which says that if in fact the fourth plant goes under in an earthquake and those rods are exposed, it’s bye bye Japan and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. Now if that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.
Read to see why he’s so upset. I have verified the fact that one of the outcomes is a criticality (nuclear fission event, not just a “dirty bomb”) involving all 6,000 fuel rods at the site. There are degrees of “criticality” ranging from “atom bomb” (unlikely here, we think) to “simple” uncontrolled fission and massive radiation release. In this case, “massive release” could mean as much as 85 times the radioactive Cesium as was released at Chernobyl. Gundersen (my paragraphing):
“There is a risk of an inadvertent criticality if the bundles are distorted and get too close to each other,” Gundersen said. He was referring to an atomic chain reaction that left unchecked could result in a large release of radiation and heat that the fuel pool cooling system isn’t designed to absorb.
“The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it,” Gundersen said. “The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction.”
The rods are also vulnerable to fire should they be exposed to air, Gundersen said.
The Japanese Mafia Allegedly in Control of Subcontracted Work at Fukushima
This brings us to the neoliberal (privatized, anti-regulation) part of the story. Just as the site is not controlled by the Japanese government, but by a private corporation (TEPCO), the company itself is not really in charge. Instead it has itself outsourced the work to a vast network of contractors, subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, many with mafia (Yakuza) connections.
Revelations from a Fukushima cleanup worker-turned-whistleblower have exposed the plant’s chaotic system of subcontractors, their alleged mafia connections and the super-exploitation of indigent workers doing this dangerous work.
The allegations, contained in an investigative report by Reuters [see my link below], have also exposed deeply-rooted problems within Japan’s nuclear industry as a whole. In the report, detailing the everyday realities of workers at the stricken facility, Reuters interviewed an estimated 80 casual workers and managers. The most common complaint voiced was the cleanup effort’s utter dependence on subcontractors – which it is alleged endangered not just workers’ rights, but also their lives.
Tetsuya Hayashi, a 41-tyear-old construction worker by trade, applied for a job at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after he suspected that the plant was in deeper trouble than it was willing to admit. The $150 billion cleanup effort, which is expected to last several decades into the future, has already required up to 50,000, mostly casual workers.
However, Hayashi only lasted two weeks on the job, as it became apparent that the vast network of subcontractors involved in the cleanup efforts could not care less for his rights (or his health), while Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, was doing little except giving subcontractors a slap on the wrist. …
In this race to the bottom over workers’ rights and pay, many subcontractors with allegedly questionable connections gained control of the impoverished Fukushima prefecture’s market for cleanup jobs. It is those companies that have taken advantage of the staggering shortage of cleanup workers and allowed companies associated with the plant with alleged ties with Japan’s organized crime syndicates, the yakuza, to flourish. And there are close to 50 gangs affiliated with three major syndicates in the prefecture alone – a fact that had an effect on the local labor market long before the tragedy of March 2011. …
In some cases, workers in debt to the yakuza would be hired, with brokers deducting their debts direct from their wage packets – often brown envelopes. What would follow was labor at sharply reduced wages, as the men worked tirelessly to pay back the brokers that hired them.
The underlying Reuters investigative piece is here.
Your Neoliberal Public-Private Partnerships at Work
See what I mean about “public-private partnerships”? This is the corrupt nexus of government and their cronies in the private sector who all agree that government exists to give business to its friends in business. Private solutions to public problems, because … well, jobs (or corruption) or something.
You saw that in Chicago, with the parking meter scheme, and you’re seeing it here.
What do you call the theory that government exists to serve business to business? Neoliberalism. And no, that’s not snark. That’s the definition.
I’ll have more on neoliberalism later. But for now, this is the world as brought to you by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and … yes, the corrupt Japanese government. Why should the U.S. take over the Gulf Oil spill, when BP is already on the job? Why should the U.S. offer affordable, easy-to-understand health insurance, when all these private insurance companies are already on the job.
And why should the Japanese government take over Fukushima when its friends at TEPCO are there already, eager to serve (a myriad of friendly subcontractors)?
Feeling lucky? I’m sure not.