Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Fear, Uncertainty and Deception – the media goes into meltdown over Japanese nuclear power


This is a combination of stuff that I’ve written elsewhere in various forums, Facebook posts, etc, so apologies if it isn’t entirely consistent.

Last week, Japan suffered a major earthquake and devastating tsunami. The actual number of deaths isn’t yet known, but estimates range from the low thousands to the tens of thousands. Plus, of course, there are equally large numbers of injuries as well as major damage to the country’s infrastructure. It was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, and one of the worst tsunamis ever experienced. By any measurement, then, it was a pretty major catastrophe.

Among the damage was that caused to several nuclear power plants. Now, if you listen to to the broadcast media or read the tabloid (and even broadsheet) press you could be forgiven for thinking that the earthquake didn’t really do much damage at all. That’s because the press has continually focussed on the power plants and the potential for a nuclear disaster.

The problem with that is that, quite simply, much of the reporting is nothing more than uninformed speculation. Before you read the rest of this article, please go away and read these first:

The last one is particularly interesting, as it makes the very important point that even if the worst possible case scenario comes to pass at one or more of the Japanese nuclear power plants, it will still be far less damaging than the tsunami itself. A worst case scenario from a major disaster at one of the power plants could see up to around 50 people exposed to deadly levels of radiation and maybe a couple of thousand exposed to levels that may adversely affect their health. But the earthquake and tsunami have already killed and injured far more than that.

Time for another brief diversion. Take a look at the list of previous nuclear accidents, here:

It’s an interesting list. Most notably, only a few of them – even those more serious than Fukushima – have resulted in fatalities, and only Chernobyl caused a large number of deaths. The more hysterical commentators in the media and elsewhere seem to believe that any nuclear disaster will inevitably result in vast numbers of deaths and injuries; the reality is that death and long-term injury are rare even at the more serious end of the scale. More people died in the Flixborough explosion in 1974 than have been killed by any nuclear power station incident other than Chernobyl. And those who argue against nuclear power and in favour of so-called “renewable” sources might care to note that 75 people died in 2009 when the Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station failed and the turbine hall was flooded. Oil-fired power stations rarely have major incidents, but the oil has to come from somewhere and 167 people died when Piper Alpha exploded in 1988. The same applies to coal:  It’s a safe way of generating electricity but mining it is dangerous; just ask the relatives of the men killed in a New Zealand coal mine. Or, for that matter, ask the survivors and relatives of victims at Aberfan.

Anyway, back to Japan. It’s also worth noting that, as a result of damage to the nuclear power plants, Japan is suffering a severe shortage of electricity. Rolling blackouts have had to be imposed across Tokyo and other major cities, affecting transport and infrastructure as well as homes and industry. The damage to rail and roads in the affected areas means that medical supplies are running low in hospitals and clinics. Food and water are running low, too. An oil refinery at Sendai has been burning since Friday, emitting dense clouds of carcinogenic smoke that roll across residential districts. People will die as a result of all of these.

It doesn’t help, of course, when campaigning organisations leap on the Japanese experience and use it to make political capital. Greenpeace, for example, says that

Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core

That is, quite simply, a lie. And I mean a lie, in the sense of deliberate malicious falsehood. This isn’t a mistake by people who don’t know any better, it is a statement made by those who care nothing for truth and everything for making their voice heard. Anti-nuclear campaigners in the UK have latched on to similar beliefs and are happily using them to mislead others.

Even if the absolute worst-case scenario in Japan materialises – breaching of the reactor shell itself and release of radioactive material directly into the atmosphere – the consequence in terms of fatalities is likely to be measured in the tens or less. In an area where thousands – and possibly tens of thousands – of people have already died as a direct result of the tsunami itself, that’s barely a footnote.

The continued obsession of the Western media with the nuclear power plants is diverting attention from the real human tragedy in Japan (and don’t forget Libya while you’re at it). I’d like to think we can do better than that.