I have deliberately not followed the news much over the past few days. Not because I don’t care what is happening in Libya or Japan, but because the 24 hour news channels do not seem to be able to provide anything other than sensationalist hype. Particularly in the case of the difficulties at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the news channels are dealing in conjecture and hyperbole. Flocks of pundits have descended on their studios, each willing to speculate on what might be going on.
This is not news. It’s some kind of freakish reality show, and I’d rather wait and let the Japanese authorities deal with the issue and then report back to us. I much prefer the Japanese approach, by the way, which is to not have hourly press briefings, but rather to just busy themselves with sorting out the problem. I have every confidence that they will, too.
The editorial in this week’s Spectator magazine put into words what I have been battling to articulate to myself. It’s worth a read – you can do so at their website, or an extract below:
Source: The Spectator, 19 MARCH 2011
The extraordinary images from Japan over the past week evoke not only sympathy but awe.
The extraordinary images from Japan over the past week evoke not only sympathy but awe. The damage wreaked by the natural disasters, in both human and economic terms, has been colossal. Entire communities have been reduced to little more than shattered glass and driftwood. The death toll is already well into the thousands, with more bodies being washed up on the country’s shores each day. Yet what we see in Japan is not despair; it is an extraordinary stoicism. Strangers helping each other as if they were family. A nation pulling together.
The hysteria has come not from the Japanese people, but from the rest of the world. The tsunami’s death toll may run into the tens of thousands, yet western attention is instead fixated on the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Even as the plant’s workforce continued to toil around its stricken reactors, western observers were dusting off a lexicon that had rarely been touched since the Chernobyl disaster. Words like ‘fallout’ and ‘meltdown’ have been used at every opportunity. The tone at times has been of morbid anticipation.
What is happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant is certainly worrying. The Japanese have evacuated thousands of people from danger zones, and American warships have nudged away from Japan’s coast in an act of nervous self-preservation. The situation could deteriorate as new fires and fresh explosions tear through the plant and its reactors. But this does not explain or excuse the extraordinary language from the European energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, who declared that ‘there is talk of an apocalypse’ — a word which, he said, ‘is particularly well chosen’.
Such hyperbole ignores how surprisingly well Japan’s nuclear power stations have held up so far. Despite one of the most ferocious earthquakes in recorded history and a 30ft wave, a handful of old nuclear reactors have remained largely intact and released only small quantities of radiation into the environment.
This is not to dismiss the danger. There have been a series of spectacular explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but casualties have been relatively light. The current tally stands at two missing, 15 injured and some cases of radiation sickness. While tragic, these casualties are dwarfed by the suffering elsewhere in the country.
Outside the European Parliament, many scientists give a more sober assessment of the situation. ‘In the worst-case scenario, we could be looking at another Three Mile Island,’ is how Laurence Williams, Professor of Nuclear Safety at the University of Central Lancashire, put it during a recent press conference. ‘This is not a Chernobyl event.’ The Japanese nuclear safety agency itself places the incident at level four (of seven) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The Three Mile Island accident was at level five. Chernobyl, level seven. Still a concern, but one to keep in perspective.
Japan relies on nuclear power for a third of its energy: it has long prepared for such an emergency. Fukushima’s engineers are working to contain the radioactive potential of its reactors, aiming to allow them to cool slowly. If they fail, then there is the chance that one or more of the nuclear cores will melt, perhaps even escaping their concrete containers. Yet even this would be manageable. There will be no nuclear explosion. Some radioactive material — iodine-131 and caesium-137 — will erupt a few hundred feet into the air, but this will affect no one outside the 12-mile exclusion zone that has already been established. Iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, so it will be diluted to one-16th of its original power after a month. The toxic gas Nitrogen-16 has been emitted, but this decays to oxygen within seconds.
None of this will matter to anti-nuclear activists, who are using Japan’s tragedy to reassert their own agenda. The doom-laden coverage of the Fukushima incident has handed them a massive weapon with which to beat the atomic renaissance back into submission. After Three Mile Island (which, it ought to be remembered, resulted in zero deaths and no discernible increase in illness) America’s nuclear industry was paralysed, and dozens of planned reactors were cancelled. Already, with the concessions being made by Germany’s Angela Merkel, there are echoes of this around the world.
It is part of human nature to become disproportionately fearful of radiation because we cannot see it. Water and mud are far more familiar — yet, in Japan’s case, they have been by far the greater killer. At a time when the West is trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, a move away from nuclear now would only serve to intensify our growing energy crisis. At such times, it is vital to keep a sense of perspective. Japan’s calm and level-headed response to this calamity is a lesson to us all.