Media Meltdown

by | Mar 14, 2011

I have an article up on Spiked about the response to the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from the media and anti-nuclear lobby.

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?

Read on…

The low-quality copy emerging even from the ‘quality’ press has been amazing. It has been totally speculative, and giving a lot of free airtime to the nakedly anti-nuclear agenda, merely to generate something exciting out of the unfolding event.


  1. Hugh

    Agree that the story seems twisted in the media and I hope that all is now under control but what about the other costs? i.e. 20% loss of power and thousands of people evacuated, costs of the clear up and the fact that none of the three reactors that have problems can be used again? On top of everything that Japan is dealing with this is a big blow. The cost of procuring alternative power to cover the loss of generation will be large and it is hardly like building nuclear in a good site with the right safety is a speedy process. The resilience of nuclear is not good when viewed from perspective of total lifetime cost of the plant and its resources.

    Using nuclear power requires humans to be at the limit of our foresight and safety planning due to the time scales involved. We just cannot plan for what might happen to a plant over 40-60yr lifetime of plant (not to mention the waste – and yes I am aware that there is little waste now and from new generation reactors but we still have to deal with it).

    Currently it does not seem like either the pro or the anti nuclear lobbies are showing a sophisticated response to the situation.

    Even if you don’t think that we are entering into a period of greater uncertainty (which is hard to argue against at the moment) then the resilience of nuclear and the costs have to be questioned. It is not as simple as nuclear = safe.

  2. Ben Pile

    Hugh, nobody is arguing that nuclear = safe.

    The point is about a huge earthquake and tsunami being dwarfed by a situation that, even if it ends up matching Chernobyl in its scale, is yet nowhere near as destructive as the events which caused it. On the other hand, the coming weeks may yet reveal that the loss of control of the reactors has been wildly exaggerated. Yet many stories in the media — without much evidence — seems to be claiming that there is a battle to prevent an explosive meltdown.

    The fact of a ‘period of greater uncertainty’ is political, I would point out. Nervousness about nuclear energy is preceded by uncertainty about what we’d even do with any new nuclear installations, or why we’d build them. The provision of energy is, I think, seen in today’s world (in the West, that is) as something that merely keeps the lights on and the masses from rioting. It’s not seen as creating any new possibilities or opportunities.

  3. sean

    One thing I find interesting about the coverage of the earthquake is that I haven’t found a single (American) story that details why the various reactors are not being cooled properly, just that “seawater is being used” as an alternative. Is freshwater just not available, have pipes burst, have pumps been broken? None of the stories relate this information.
    I think an omission like this proves that the media are more interested in the emotional aspects of the story than actual reporting.

  4. Heni

    The nuclear event would have to be one of the most speculation-rich and content-free examples of news coverage I’ve seen. The topic gets updated regularly in the Google news feeds, but the most cursory examination shows that nothing new has happened.

    The interesting thing, though, is seeing online comments from people who don’t trust the power company, the government or the media. They probably wouldn’t trust nuclear experts either. Some of this is understandable, but I wonder – do we now have a generation of people who won’t believe anything unless it’s all doom and gloom and danger?

  5. StuartR

    Heni, it is interesting you mention the Google news feed. I think I have finally come to the conclusion I probably rely on it too much. As you say, a refresh seems to bubble up only the most garish “Radiation Risen” headline or “People Fear” type headline to the top. I stopped instinctively clicking on these headlines quite early on a while back after having read the initial speculations, so I am not sure what the Google algorithm is doing now. Maybe most other people do click on these headlines and get they get highlighted? I would argue there is some self-feeding system in Google news that could do with some other algorithm option for the more rational minded. It is ironic that on Google news right now if you cast your eyes at the top third you would imagine that Nuclear power was a busted flush that has depressed the stock market, before then scrolling down to remind yourself of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that has killed thousands and destroyed billions in infrastructure.

  6. Heni

    Stuart, as the Google search algorithm is built on popularity, it would make sense that the news feeds are as well. I have strong feelings about the whole ratings approach, and they aren’t positive. You could say that it’s the cyber-equivalent of “the consensus” – numbers rather than genuine relevance. I wish I knew of a source of considered and balanced information, but at the moment I don’t, or only for specific issues that I’m interested in. Once upon a time, the BBC filled that role, but not nowadays!

  7. geoffchambers

    Here’s my entry for the most over-the-top comment, from John Vidal:

    “The question now is whether the [nuclear] industry can be trusted anywhere… In just one generation it has killed, wounded or blighted the lives of many millions of people… Next time the disaster may have nothing to do with an earthquake or a tsunami, but be because of terrorism, climate change … or a deranged plant manager”.

    Besides anti-nuclear bias, there are other aspects of modern techno-blindness at work: tea-leaf journalism, or the obsession with reading the future in the entrails of the past; the visual illiteracy of journalists incapable of interpreting what’s going on in front of their eyes (anyone with a decent atlas and access to GoogleEarth could have done a better job than the mainstream media of interpreting the aerial film which was shown ad nauseam this weekend); and (a symptom typical of environmentalism) an obsession with official figures. We knew whole cities had disappeared while the official death toll was still in the dozens, yet no journalists would take the responsibility of interpreting these simple facts.

  8. Alex Cull

    Plenty of this on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme!

    Today Programme, 15th March:
    “Four days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear plant have risen significantly after a third explosion there.”

    0709: “The Japanese prime minister has warned people close to nuclear plants to stay indoors as radioactive levels remain high. Professor John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, outlines the worst case scenario.”

    0743: “As the authorities in Japan try to contain the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, those communities wrecked by the tsunami are beginning their own efforts to pick up the pieces.”

    0810: “Explosions at a Japanese nuclear plant have led to radiation levels that can affect human health, a senior official has said. Noriuki Shikata, director of communications for the Japanese prime minister, opposition politician Taro Kono and the UK’s ambassador to Japan, David Warren comment on the escalating nuclear problem.”

    “radiation levels”… “John Beddington”… “worst case scenario”… “worst nuclear disaster”… “Chernobyl”… “human health”… “escalating nuclear problem”…

  9. geoffchambers

    The BBC probably believes inserting the words “Professor John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser” will have a calming effect. Ony to us terminal sceptics are these words a warning light.

    Vidal’s masterly insertion of “climate change” right after “nuclear […] has killed […] millions” is becoming a compulsive tic at Guardian environment. Just a few hours later, Vidal is back with an article co-authored with Carrington which speaks of:

    “… doubt on the accuracy of official information … a pattern of secrecy and cover-ups … impossible to get any radiation readings … we are being told nothing …. It was the same at Chernobyl … The country’s government has previously been accused of covering up nuclear accidents and hampering the development of alternative energy.
    … covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry … a clear pattern of secrecy and denial … The reality is we just do not know…”

  10. Ben Pile

    To be fair to Beddington, he was on the BBC site previously saying that this accident is not like Chernobyl, and there’s much less potential for it to be the same scale.

    I didn’t hear the Today programme, however.

  11. Dominic

    It’s worth at least considering the role the anti-nuclear lobby has in increasing the likelihood of accidents.

    By delaying/preventing the building of new plant, anti-nuclear sentiment forces obsolete reactors to be kept in operation when they should have been decommissioned.

    I have read, but not verified, that Fukushima Daiichi was supposed to have been shut down last month, but instead had its operating licence extended in order to meet demand for electricity.

    If this is so, and if ‘green’ anti-nuclear activism in Japan played any part in delaying the construction of new reactors, it is partly responsible for what is happening.

    I distinguish between ‘green’ anti-nuclear power advocacy and the Japanese antipathy towards nuclear weapons for obvious reasons.

  12. j ferguson

    My ignorant reading of the difficulties the Japanese are having with their older plants is very sobering. I fear that it will be very difficult to explain to the apprehensive that they had no problem with shutdowns with the newer designs.

    It would be nice if people could compare the relative safety of a 1937 automobile with what is available today. I read an article in today’s Washington Post which contrasted the meticulous ways of the Japanese with what we do in the US – which she inferred to be sloppy and cavalier. Maybe she’s yet to hear about General Electric.

  13. Alex Cull

    Dominic, j ferguson, re the older power stations and possible planned closure, these reactors appear to have been operating since the 1970s (the first one starting in 1971, 40 years ago!) according to this site:

    Just listened to the audio from the Today Programme and the John Beddington interview, and I agree with Ben; in fact, Prof. Beddington comes across as entirely sensible, and as un-alarmist as it is possible to be. A couple of times during the interview, James Naughtie tries to make the comparison with Chernobyl and mentions radioactive sheep, etc., but Beddington is not having it, and makes it abundantly clear that the two scenarios are completely different. Excellent interview.

    The audio is here (for the moment, anyway):

    Geoff, the Guardian indeed appears to be sliding towards anti-nuclear meltdown! Will the containment vessel around John Vidal hold? Some good comments: “Did somebody send out an emergency email this morning asking for a rash of ad-hoc hysterical anti-nuclear articles?” “Oh for goodness sake – is this, what, the third almost identical article today?” Alarms are blaring, warning lights are flashing, and a bucket or two of cold water is urgently required.

  14. Dominic

    Alex Cull

    Yes, I knew the Fukushima reactors were 41 yeas old. And working fine until beset by a massive natural disaster.

    It’s sometimes sobering to consider that there are plenty of reactors of similar vintage around, but that things have moved on since they were built.

    Imagine if you still had your 1970s car, or television, or phone…

    So with reactor design.

  15. Alex Cull

    Dominic, I agree re the good safety record of these reactors, just am amazed by the fact that they’ve been working continually for this long. Considering their age and the scale of the earthquake/tsunami (one scientist in the news has been calling this a once-in-a-1,000-year event) this hasn’t been too disastrous an outcome, so far, IMO.

  16. j ferguson

    Some of us don’t think 40 years is very old. My pride in my 35 year architectural career was somewhat dampened on taking my bride to see the first project whose design I had controlled, not to find it there after 30 years and being told that it had been taken down – “…obsolete, don’t you know.”

    But for nuclear reactors?? The art has advanced considerably since 1972. I think this was your point, wasn’t it?

  17. Alex Cull

    @ j ferguson, I think my reaction was a mixture of admiration for this technology, outmoded but still perfectly functioning (under normal conditions) and sheer surprise that the installation is as old as it is (I had been assuming, ignorantly, that it dated from, e.g., the 1990s).

    On the subject of nuclear, Lewis Page has a rather encouraging article over at the Register:

  18. Heni

    Now the scare txts have started coming. I received one a couple of hours ago. Fortunately, I was able to assure the sender that it was irrelevant to where we are living (> 35deg S latitude), but for a lot of people, that won’t be so easy to do. If it’s scary, it’s believable, and anyone who disagrees is in the pay of someone.

  19. Dominic

    Heni – and others here

    While it is difficult to get good information on the events at Fukushima Daiichi, the daily updates at Brave New Climate are invaluable:

  20. Alex Cull

    @ Dominic and Heni, agree re BraveNewClimate and WNN, both excellent sources. There’s now a very good video interview with Barry Brook on BraveNewClimate here:
    Though not sharing his position on AGW, I find him a beacon of rationality on the subject of the risks of nuclear.

    Contrast with Caroline Lucas; this is from an interview with Radio Sussex last week:

    “You can’t design out unforeseen circumstances. When they built those nuclear power stations 40 years ago, they never expected an earthquake of that size. Here in Britain, just back in the 1950’s, we had storm surges which were extraordinary and killed 300 people in East Anglia – you cannot predict what’s going to come in the future, and if there are alternatives, we should be using them. If it were genuinely the case that we had to make the choice between climate change and nuclear power, then of course the situation would be different, we’d have to look at it again. That’s not the choice we’re being faced with right now. You can never “design out,” whether it’s a terrorist attack, whether it’s human error, and when you’re dealing with something that’s as inherently risky as nuclear, it doesn’t make sense to take that risk.”

    There are always risks – from earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surges, radiation, etc., etc., and there are also grave risks associated with power outages and the prolonged lack of proper lighting and heating – which is what we’d assuredly have, if we started to rely entirely on renewables, at this stage.

    Talking of risks, watching Channel 4 News a few nights ago, it was difficult to escape the impression that Tokyo has been emptying, as the population start to flee west and south, to escape the nuclear peril. I have friends and in-laws living in Tokyo, who tell me this is utter nonsense. My verdict: poor-quality, alarmist journalism at work.

    The following tweet by Tokyo resident Todd Fouts ( says it all: “#Tokyo Radiation Levels Remain Normal. Locals Enjoy Sunny Saturday. Foreign Correspondents, Looking Bored, Work on Gaddafi Stories.”

  21. Mooloo

    The rational conclusion to the events in Japan would suggest that living by the coast is more dangerous than living by nuclear power stations. Just as Katrina was rather more deadly than Three Mile Island.

    Yet I imagine people will continue to pay a premium to live by the coast, and will still be scared of nuclear power stations 100km away.

    Most of the journalists don’t have a clue when it comes to the science. Many keep talking about the Fukushima plant “emitting radiation”. What they mean, I suppose, is that it is releasing radioactive particles into the atmosphere. If their confusion is at that level then they have no chance of understanding any briefing or explanation. However few journalists will pass on a story on the basis that they don’t understand it, so what we get told is a heavily garbled explanation.

    Myself, I’m avoiding the story. I’ll wait until detailed explanations are forthcoming in a year or so. I confess I have issues with the idea that every story must be followed up the minute.

  22. geoffchambers

    “I have issues with the idea that every story must be followed up the minute”.

    Me too. I like my history subject to centennial smoothing.
    You’re obviously never been fascinated by a graph whose moving finger writes, and having writ, makes a vulgar gesture which gets interpreted as the Signpost to Doom.
    You’ll never make it as climate scientist, my son.

  23. Alex Cull

    Now here’s a treat – recent video footage of a TV debate between George Monbiot and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, on the Democracy Now! website:

    The debate starts at about the 12:50 mark, and apart from some silly comments about “deniers”, George is very much a voice of reason. And although he talks about consensus, he also makes some highly sensible points – for empiricism, against alarmism.

    However, I cannot say the same for his opposite number, Helen Caldicott. Not being able to do justice to the gloriously unhinged quality of some of the things she asserts, I simply recommend that you watch the video (you can also download an MP3 of the audio track or read the transcript that Democracy Now! very helpfully supply.)

  24. geoffchambers

    Thanks Alex. That is some document. Caldicott thinks the death toll from Chernobyl was a million, Monbiot says 47. So no meeting of minds there. But they came together in the end, when Caldicott said:
    “George, I totally agree with you about coal. I think it’s a deadly substance, and we must stop burning, à la James Hansen”.

    I can’t agree with you about George being the voice of reason though. Every single time George got a word in, it was to issue a totally irrelevant warning about climate deniers . Here’s my cherry-pick of the bunch:

    “It may cause health effects for some people. But we’ve got to be very careful about not doing what, say, the climate change deniers do when they say that there’s no danger from climate change: cherry-picking studies, plucking out work which is very much against the scientific consensus”.

    “When I’ve been dealing with climate change over the past 20 years or so, I learned very quickly that you have to effectively go with the scientific consensus rather than with a few outlier papers, because to choose those outlier papers over the scientific consensus is effectively to cherry-pick or to data mine, and to get what has turns out to be a misleading view. That’s certainly been my experience with climate change”.

    “I think we’re in danger, possibly, of falling into a similar trap to the trap that climate change deniers have fallen into with their cherry-picking of the science there”.

    “It worries me …that we’re getting into the same sort of conspiratorial thinking that you have with climate change denial … whereby anyone who doesn’t go along with the line of the climate change deniers, that carbon dioxide is not connected with climate change, for example, is in the hands of the carbon trading industry or something like that”.

    Cherry-picking, data mining, and accusing opponents of being in the hands of industry. Sounds familiar. George’s imitation of the wooselum bird gets more and more entertaining.

  25. Alex Cull

    Geoff, in the cold light of day, hmm, it does become apparent that in this exchange, the calm rationality of his comments about radiation is indeed spoilt by some of the other stuff. Ah well, maybe no biscuit for George, in that case.

  26. Lewis Deane

    Of course, Ben, this irrationality is stupidly common. I live in Morecambe, near a couple of nuclear sites, and I remember the old fuss from Ireland spilling out of our pipes. Of course, it meant nothing. You can understand my despair, Ben?

  27. geoffchambers

    The Guardian – world leaders in media catastrophism – are rebranding their propaganda effort. They have an article by Bill McKibben at
    which is the top story on their main site, and which, though it mentions climate change in practically every paragraph, doesn’t appear on their environment or climate change pages, but under “World News / Natural disasters and extreme weather”. Here’s the gist:

    “We need some explanation for why our stable world is suddenly cracked in half or under water. Still, over time we’ve become less superstitious, since science can explain these cataclysms. Angry gods or plate tectonics? We’re definitely moving towards natural explanation of crises. Which is odd, because the physical world is moving in the other direction. The Holocene – the 10,000 years through which we have just come – was by all accounts a period of calm and stability on Earth…”

    The garbled message seems to be that consumerism causes earthquakes. Sensibly, the Guardian has not provided the possibility for readers to comment.

  28. Mooloo

    We need some explanation for why our stable world is suddenly cracked in half or under water.

    This is what gets me most about the whole AGW movement. They have no sense of scale.

    Even if we accept that CO2 is warming the world, we will not be able to reliably distinguish the effects in the short term. A rise of 0.2° in a lifetime does not cause rapid species extinction or monumental changes in rainfall patterns. One earthquake does not make a pattern.

    The Pielke’s hammer on about this, using solid statistics and common sense, but it never seems to sink in. We aren’t having a spate of earthquakes. We are having the standard amount. It just seems worse because we are coming out of an unusual pause and we now have instantaneous worldwide communication.

    Every time someone says “this event is caused by global warming” you know they are talking politics not science. We simply cannot distinguish signal from noise in the short term.

  29. Alex Cull

    Talking about the world cracking in half, etc., and global warming to blame, somebody sensible had better have a quiet word with Paddy Ashdown, advisor to DFID and the UK Government. Here he is, talking on BBC Radio 5 Live last Monday:

    “…things are about to change radically. What we’ve seen recently – Typhoon Nargis, the tsunami of Japan of course, Pakistan floods, Haiti – we conclude that these are not some strange aberration from the past, they’re a prediction of the future.”

    “…we’re going to see more of them, more of these mega-emergencies, as global warming increases -”

    Nicky Campbell: “We’ve always had floods and natural disasters – read your Bible.”

    Paddy Ashdown: “Yeah, but – indeed so. But not on the scale that we have seen recently. Not on the scale of Haiti, not on the scale of the Pakistan floods and the reason for this is twofold, basically twofold. One is increasing global warming, in the Himalaya/Hindu Kush area in particular – the third greatest concentration of snow and ice in the world, now melting faster than anywhere else on Earth. Er, feeding a sixth of the world’s population. And the second is increasing population densities, in places like Pakistan, people are living in the flood plains where they’ve never lived before.”

    Later, he talks of the volumes of water “which are now being leaked into the Earth system, particularly around this – what people call the Third Pole” (the Himalayas/Hindu Kush area) an active geological region where “some believe that that itself [presumably the water leakage] is destabilising the crust”.

    Paging Roland Emmerich…

  30. George Carty

    I just thought I’d copy a comment from Brian Mays on the new Atomic Insights blog:

    In this case, I’m pretty sure that Monbiot has had a genuine change of heart. To understand Monbiot, you have to realize that he is someone who places enormous value on the words of authority. He is not the type of person who will question or try to second-guess what he perceives as a “consensus” among scientists.

    Given his left-leaning political philosophy, his self-identification as an environmentalist, and his inherent distrust of anything associated with corporations or the military, it was only natural that the “experts” he originally sought out were prominent environmentalists, almost all of whom were staunchly anti-nuclear, particularly back then. To him, they were the authorities (and enough of them have advanced degrees to give the veneer of respectability) and he accepted their word without question.

    The other thing to understand about Monbiot is that he is, by nature, a True Believer. When he accepts something, he takes it in as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He is not one of the many sneaky people in this world who will lie and cheat, even to himself, to contort the evidence to adhere to his world view. For many years, he had been told by his chosen experts that an event such as what occurred at Fukushima-1 would be a devastating nuclear disaster, with massive deaths and destruction. Then, when that event came and the disaster did not materialize, it shook his faith in the “consensus”. He had an epiphany. In other words, he needed new experts.

    Fortunately, he turned to the UN organizations (whom he trusts because they are “the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” whom he inherently trusts already), and began to learn something real about the risks associated with radiation. Notice that Monbiot does not argue from first principles, as a technically knowledgeable person would do; all of his arguments against Caldicott are arguments from authority — this time from the NAS and UN organizations. Notice also how he brings “climate change” into the discussion. Now, to him, those in the anti-nuclear movement are the “deniers” who are against consensus science. Even though he has changed positions, he maintains that “good-guy/bad-guy” mentality that is essential to his highly polarized view of the world.

    This all reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time. People complain that the nuclear industry does not do enough to get the word out, but realistically, there is only so much that the industry itself, and those who work for the industry, can do. It is up to the academics and government scientists to step up and counter the nonsense, because if they don’t, the Greens will have total control of the playing field. Note that Mobiot adds in passing that, “I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry.” There is no way that anyone in the industry would have been able to change his mind.

  31. geoffchambers

    The Monbiot – Caldicott debate which Alex linked to March 30th above continues in the Guardian, with Monbiot accusing Caldicott of unscientific practice at
    and Caldicott replying at:
    While it’s impossible for a non-expert to judge where the scientific truth lies, it’s amazing to see two supposedly well-informed commenters unable to decide whether the death toll from Chernobyl is 47 or a million.
    Monbiot has published his correspondence with Caldicott at
    which provides a lot of comic insight into Monbiot’s self-image. I liked this:
    “Sorry Helen, that’s just not good enough, not by a long chalk. I’ve asked you for specific answers to specific questions. Either you have sources for your claims or you don’t. If you don’t it is perfectly acceptable to retract them and admit the mistake. If you do, they should be at your fingertips. It is up to you to provide them, not up to me to try to winnow and discern them from your work. If you don’t have time today I can give you another 24 hours (but no more, as I will need time to read and check anything you send me). So please let me have them by 8pm EST tomorrow”

  32. Ben Pile

    Thanks Geoff — because of the links, the software held this post back. I’m trying to work out a way of letting comments from regular commenters go through without this automatic moderation.

    Sorry also for the recent quiet, I’m busy, but also working on a (too) long post on Monbiot’s pro-nuclear position.


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