Making mountains out of meltdowns

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at</em>

The destruction caused by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, and the tsunami which followed it,were not momentous enough for much of the world’s press.

Thousands of people are feared dead. Tens of thousands are missing or injured. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Buildings, vehicles of all kinds and civil infrastructure have been smashed to pieces and swept away. But the story that has dominated the news in the past 48 hours is the loss of control of two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In contrast to the devastation across Japan, however, the accident has – at the time of writing – so far caused only 15 injuries, just one of which appears to be serious, and a handful of suspected cases of exposure to radiation, none of which appear to be serious. So why is there such a preoccupation with the nuclear power plant?

‘Fears of catastrophe as nuclear plant explodes’, ran the headline in The Sunday Times. Yet the explosion took place long after concerns were raised about the loss of control of reactor 1. And the plant did not explode. There was an explosion at the plant, a big difference when we consider that none of the reactors or their containments were damaged. (A similar thing appears to have occurred this morning at reactor 3.) ‘Thousands feared dead after blast at Fukushima No. 1 plant in Japan’, screamed the Herald Sun. The headline isliterally true, of course. Thousands are dead and there was an explosion; but nobody has died as a consequence of the explosion. The low-quality journalism and pointless commentary continued across the media and internet, but it is epitomised by this line from The Sunday Times’ multi-page gore-fest: ‘The ghosts of Chernobyl and Five Mile Island (sic)hung in the air.’

This kind of lurid, almost prurient prose is standard fare in coverage of disasters of this magnitude. Anxious to file copy, yet without the necessary facts to make sense of a situation that is by definition chaotic, wild speculation is the journalist’s displacement activity. It’s not so much that the ‘ghosts’ of nuclear accidents past haunt the site of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, but that they haunt the heads of lazy hacks, who have no better way of expressing their own poorly-informed view of the situation. Anybody could make such a statement. A concatenation of barely-understood factoids about nuclear energy and the unfolding crisis created a drama that barely resembled what was actually happening, based on the simple equation ‘Nuclear power station + explosion = Chernobyl’.

The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 is the event by which all nuclear accidents will be naturally measured, unless something worse ever happens. But it is not a useful standard. The chain of events there, too, involved the loss of control of a nuclear reactor, but of a different design. The much smaller Japanese reactor sits in a containment chamber made from steel several inches thick, unlike its Russian predecessor, which was less stable, and operated by inexperienced technicians. The two countries’ cultures also vary greatly, with safety and public accountability being far higher up the public agenda in a democracy. Safety protocols in the West are constantly pored over and contested in public, in a way that was simply not possible in the Soviet Union.

The fact that different and superior reactor designs and safety protocols make it highly unlikely that Fukushima Daiichi 1 will ‘do a Chernobyl’ does not stop the speculation that it will, and is about to, however. And just as journalists with nothing better to do are happy to cook up salacious copy, so are anti-nuclear and environmental campaigners keen to exploit the anxiety it creates.

Within hours of the incident, Greenpeace had declared that ‘Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core and won’t’. Crispin Aubery, an anti-nuclear campaigner at Hinkley Point in England – site of two long-standing nuclear stations and a possible site for a new plant – told local news reporters, ‘The events in Japan provide yet more evidence that nuclear power is unsafe… We should immediately shelve plans for any new reactors in this country, including the Hinkley C proposal.’ Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a US anti-nuclear weapons pressure group, told CNN: ‘This is going to go down in history as one of the three greatest nuclear incidents, if it stops now.’

But if the accident really does get recorded as the third-worst civil nuclear accident, it will be yet further testament to the safety of nuclear power. Even the second-worst event, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979, caused no deaths, and exposed people nearby to a dose of radiation no more significant than an x-ray at a hospital. In spite of Chernobyl, nuclear power – even after an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, a resulting tsunami, and numerous powerful after-shocks on a nuclear plant about to celebrate its fortieth birthday – remains safer than many other, routine aspects of daily life.

This must say something about a hugely distorted perception of disaster, and an unchallenged desire to exploit it. The earthquake and tsunami have been far worse for Japan than Chernobyl was for people in the former Soviet Union. Only around 50 deaths can definitively attributed to Chernobyl. An official report into the aftermath in 2006 suggested that perhaps as many as 9,000 more might eventually result, over the course of decades, but this was at best an educated guess. Very little damage was done to basic infrastructure outside of the plant and the other three reactors at the Chernobyl site were up-and-running again after just seven months. Compare that to the thousands of deaths already confirmed and the sight of whole towns being swept away by last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Yet the media and anti-nuclear campaigners seem bent on priming themselves and their audience for ‘another Chernobyl’, as though it would somehow be worse than the events that have preceded it. Forget the scale of destruction and human cost caused by the earthquake and tsunami; the detection of radioisotopes at the plant ‘heralds the beginning of an ecological and human tragedy’, wrote Brian Vastag in the Washington Post. Across the coverage of the event, a sense of proportion is missing from the commentary, which fails to make the distinction between, for instance, a release of small amounts of slightly radioactive material, and a catastrophic meltdown of a reactor, its explosion, the widespread contamination of land, and the deaths of dozens of people.

Whatever happens to the reactors, we can expect even more columns of mawkish prose, written on the hoof, that will continue to distort the sensible perception of nuclear power. Anti-nuclear campaigners will continue to say that an acceptably safe form of nuclear power is not possible.

To this, it should be pointed out that earthquakes and tsunamis cause much greater problems for humans than nuclear power ever has. Furthermore, where nuclear power is a possibility ie, in wealthy economies, the effect of earthquakes and tsunamis is mitigated, and their consequences more easily ameliorated than in poorer regions. The 2004 Asian tsunami, and the earthquake in Haiti last year, were smaller in magnitude than last Friday’s events, but came at a much higher human cost than in Japan. Poverty, and the earth’s natural forces, are far more dangerous than our attempts to protect ourselves from them.

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