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What (not) to do after a nuclear accident (3): The chaos wrought by politics, industry and the media

(Photo: Douglas Sprott/Flickr)


It’s only fitting in the incredible story of nuclear power that the Fukushima accident should have come at such an unfortunate time. In politics, the problem of climate change had finally sunk in. Slowly, the realisation dawned that a source of reliable, round-the-clock carbon-free energy could be useful. Didn’t nuclear energy deserve another chance? Chernobyl was already so long ago. Surely those old-fashioned Soviet reactors had long since ceased to exist?

Lobbyists for the industry already spoke of a ‘nuclear renaissance’. This was rather premature; global electricity production from nuclear plants was no longer increasing, but fluctuating up and down. More nuclear plants were closed than opened.

But a turnaround was in the air. The promise of nuclear power had been discovered by authoritative figures from the environmental movement. Some of them used to dislike it, such as Stewart Brand, a pioneer in the 1960s counterculture, and Stephen Tindale, a former chairman of Greenpeace. They remained enthusiastic about solar panels and wind turbines, but realised, in Tindale’s words, ‘that renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to phase out fossil fuels and protect the climate’. They did not want to bet on it, acknowledged their misjudgement and showed a willingness to accept nuclear power.

Fukushima did not necessarily put an end to that willingness. Indeed, some took up the accident as an argument in favour of nuclear power. Ten days after the accident, George Monbiot, one of the intellectual forerunners of the green movement, wrote in The Guardian:

‘A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. (...) Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation. (...) The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.’

‘The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power’ - George Monbiot

Most drew a different lesson. According to them, it had been proven that an accident could not be ruled out and that nuclear power is therefore unacceptable. Satoru Yamauchi, the noodle restaurant owner in Naraha, is adamant: ‘There’s absolutely no need for nuclear power. With just one mistake, terrible things happen.’

The leader of Europe’s largest economy sided with the chef. Angela Merkel immediately closed seven nuclear plants in Germany. Encouraged by a mass protest, for which 200,000 Germans took to the streets, and referring to an old promise – made when the Greens formed the government together with the Social Democrats – the Chancellor decided to phase out nuclear power. At the time, nuclear accounted for some 25 per cent of all electricity. The last nuclear plant would have to close by 2022 at the latest.

Germany was not alone. Switzerland decided not to build any more nuclear plants. Italy spoke out, once more, against having a nuclear plant within its borders in a referendum and remained a leading importer of power from French and Swiss facilities. South Korea and Taiwan also referred to Fukushima when announcing nuclear power would be phased out.

Japan itself decided all nuclear plants had to close down. The island nation that once opted for nuclear power, because it had exhausted its own coal reserves and didn’t want to be dependent on other countries, closed dozens of nuclear reactors. Thus, Japan became one of the world’s largest importers of natural gas and coal.

So much for the nuclear renaissance.

As it happened, it wasn’t the physical health of the Japanese that took a hit from the events at Fukushima, but the nuclear industry.

In Japan, politicians and the industry were ill-prepared for an accident

Japan’s nuclear industry had it coming. For instance, nuclear companies in Japan maintained a close relationship with the regulator. They assigned jobs to one another. Power company TEPCO had been urged to raise the sea wall of its Daiichi nuclear plant, but then did nothing and got away with it.

Japan’s nuclear clique proved complacent, even though there had already been fatal accidents: in 1999, two radiation deaths at a uranium processing plant in Tokaimura, and in 2004, five fatalities resulting from a hot steam leak in the turbine building of a nuclear plant in Mihama. In both cases, safety regulations had not been followed. Staff, including managers, were inadequately trained.

Politicians were equally ill-prepared for an accident. There was an occasional mandatory drill, during which officials pretended something serious had happened at a nuclear plant. There was one five months before the ground started shaking in 2011. Then too, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ‘declared’ a nuclear emergency. Sitting at a conference table with a few ministers, he seemed uninterested, reading text from a stack of papers. What a waste of time, thought one of the ministers. After an hour, he angrily said to Kan: ‘This serves no purpose.’

Clearly, anyone who believes everything at their nuclear plants is just fine, as the Soviets and the Japanese thought, is at a disadvantage. Safety culture fails when nobody is concerned about safety. In retrospect, this is an easy observation to make. Such problems should be identified and addressed with foresight, not hindsight.

Inside and outside Japan, there is deep suspicion of companies and organisations involved in nuclear power

In both politics and the nuclear industry, there can be a worrying surplus of trust; in society, there has been a serious deficit. This is not surprising. Inside and outside Japan, there is deep suspicion of companies and organisations involved in nuclear power. TEPCO did nothing to correct that image, keeping quiet in the first hours after the accident in Fukushima. Its top executives couldn’t be reached; presumably they wanted to shift responsibility for what happened at the plant to the government.

Whatever TEPCO might have said, nobody would have bought it. It would have always sounded like an attempt to cover up the truth. Communication skills are not really their thing. To a journalist’s simple question of whether or not there was a meltdown, TEPCO’s spokesperson replied that there was ‘no evidence to specifically assert or determine either way’.

The provision of information continued to go wrong. Leaving any room for ambiguity leads to questions and concerns. After Fukushima, the Japanese government spokesperson emphasised there was ‘no immediate impact’ on health. It was meant as reassurance, but anyone hearing the phrase would think: Ah, so the health impact will come later!

So when Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was asked about Fukushima on a stage at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and said that nobody had died from radiation, a sceptical audience began to chuckle. ‘I don’t know why you’re laughing,’ Grossi responded in surprise. ‘It’s a fact.’

A fact it is, indeed. But when facts run counter to our thinking, things can get tricky. We have made nuclear power a spectre for so long that deep down we are convinced any accident in a nuclear plant must be of apocalyptic proportions. The mundane reality is nothing like the wild fantasies we have put into our heads.

We are convinced any accident in a nuclear plant must be of apocalyptic proportions. The mundane reality is nothing like the wild fantasies we have put into our heads

Fukushima was the first nuclear accident in a modern society with news 24/7. Back in 1986, we had no images or footage of Chernobyl. Journalists encountered a wall of secrecy. But now, 25 years later, the moment had finally arrived! As if the natural disaster was not enough, there had to be a nuclear catastrophe too.

Anyone re-reading news reports from those early days will be struck by the constantly lurking danger. The reactors spew deadly radiation. Radioactivity keeps rising, well above safe limits. A catastrophe is inevitable. The population seems doomed. It’s implied that the Japanese will be felled by cancer in droves, that emergency workers in and around the nuclear plant face certain death, and that authorities in politics and industry are hiding a terrible truth.

Experts with more nuanced analyses were also featured. ‘No Chernobyl is possible at a light water reactor,’ explained a Japanese professor. ‘Loss of coolant means a temperature rise, but it also will stop the reaction.’

Yet such words proved to have little appeal. Journalists noticed what visitors to news websites were more eager to read and share – stories about experts who believed current events in Fukushima were ‘worse than Chernobyl’. One, Arnold Gundersen, a retired employee in the nuclear industry, told Al-Jazeera of ‘the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind’.

Journalists noticed what visitors to news websites were more eager to read and share – stories about experts who believed Fukushima was ‘worse than Chernobyl’

Editorial choices can lead to a curious cycle. First, journalists spread panic. Then, they turn the panic itself into news. Illustrative of this is the coverage in The Sun, the UK’s biggest-selling national newspaper. A few days after the devastating tsunami, The Sun’s editors put the famous yellow-and-black symbol for radioactivity on the front page, alongside a headline screaming: ‘Exodus from Tokyo – 1000s flee poison cloud’.

No explanation was given in the paper as to how exactly such a ‘poison cloud’ could threaten Tokyo’s 13 million inhabitants; even according to the most pitch-black doomsday scenario, no such thing was possible. However, the newspaper did manage to report that radiation around Fukushima was already approaching the level where people vomit uncontrollably, hair falls out and cancer rates skyrocket.


The next day, The Sun runs an op-ed by Brian Cox, a former pop musician turned professor of particle physics who hosts a popular TV show on science. Cox acknowledges that damage to a nuclear reactor sounds scary, but points out that such a reactor cannot explode like an atomic bomb, and that this Japanese plant is not like the one at Chernobyl. In the steam released into the air, Cox explains, there are only small amounts of nuclear material. ‘The levels of radiation released in this way are very small – probably about the same as you would expect on a long-distance transatlantic flight.’

Don’t panic!

But then, two days later, The Sun publishes a report by a British expat: ‘My nightmare trapped in City of Ghosts’. She is talking about Tokyo. She writes that radiation levels have already increased tenfold. The city streets are grimly empty. It’s like a zombie movie, she says. ‘What if, every day, radiation continues to double?’


All the news and commentary on Fukushima was so saddening that some could not see a glimmer of hope

Fear sells, and after a nuclear accident fear abounds. In the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, nobody was injured or made ill; the radiation released to nearby residents amounted to 0.08 mSv, or two X-rays of both hands. Still, America’s best-known news anchor addressed the nation with these words: ‘The world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse.’

When it soon turned out things weren’t that bad, the tone changed little.

A nuclear accident is a goldmine for the news industry. After Fukushima, journalists stuck to their disaster-laden script. Modern society’s free press jumped on the facts as smoothly as the Soviet state broadcaster.

All the news and commentary on Fukushima was so saddening that some could not see a glimmer of hope. On 24 March 2011, two weeks after the accident, Hisashi Tarukawa, a farmer from Sukagawa, 60 kilometres from the nuclear plant, heard he could no longer sell his rice, cabbage and other crops because of the increased radiation. He hung himself from a tree in his field. His son found him.

Tarukawa may have been the first in a long series of suicides linked to events at the Daiichi nuclear plant.

Like Hamako Watanabe, who had to leave her home. In June 2011, she returned, doused herself with petrol and set herself on fire. When she was found missing, her husband discovered her charred body at their chicken farm.

A dairy farmer left a message for those left behind: ‘If only there wasn’t a nuclear power plant.’

A 93-year-old woman, in the note she left: ‘I would only slow you down. I will evacuate to the grave.’

By 2017, 99 suicides had been counted relating to Fukushima.

Even at modern nuclear plants, radiation can escape wen things go wrong. The effect on public health will be so small that it cannot be measured

After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, we know better exactly what goes wrong when something goes wrong. Even at modern nuclear plants, radiation can escape. The radiation will rapidly decrease; the substances with the highest radioactivity decay in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours or maybe days. For nuclear plant employees who remain to keep things under control, radiation may have an impact later in life. The effect of radiation on public health is so small that it cannot be measured.

With some straightforward advice for people in the region, the response to the situation is quite manageable.

Stay indoors.

Close the windows.

Wash your clothes.

Take a shower.

The government will have to take measures: start advising whether and how to use iodine tablets (so that children in particular can saturate the thyroid gland before radioactive iodine from the nuclear plant accumulates here), monitor or confiscate local dairy products for a month or two.

That’s about it.

If information is not enough to counter fears, maybe it’s time for exceptional measures. An international commission of experts is on standby as an advisory body in any nuclear accident, but should it perhaps take over control of the crisis from the national authorities? And shouldn’t those foreign experts then take up residence in the villages surrounding the nuclear plant, preferably with pregnant wives and children, and while we’re at it, shouldn’t we bring in the country’s Prime Minister’s family as well?

Could such symbolic gestures ever win the trust that the nuclear industry has long since lost?

Politicians, journalists, industry leaders and experts can fuel a persistent feeling that disaster strikes when something goes awry at a nuclear plant

A nuclear accident generates quite a bit of uncertainty, which can easily turn into fear. It takes little more than overly firm politicians, failing communication managers, excited journalists and confused experts to do so. They fuel a persistent feeling that disaster strikes when something goes awry at a nuclear plant.

We’ll have to learn to live with the fact that a nuclear plant accident cannot be ruled out. It will take a whole lot more than a leaking pump, a crack in the concrete or an inattentive employee, but the risk will never be zero.

When something goes wrong at a nuclear plant, things presumably go wrong at newsrooms too. Yet another gas explosion or another flooded coal mine will not make journalists run faster. It is precisely because nuclear accidents are so rare that they are so newsworthy.

It wouldn’t hurt if editors looked at credentials when selecting experts. Because they do exist: competent experts with a good track record and respect from academia. Those who looked carefully could find them soon after the events at Fukushima. After readers of The Sun learned of a nervous compatriot’s nightmare in Tokyo, they could turn on Channel 4 and come across Geraldine Thomas, an expert on Chernobyl and cancer, and author of several scientific studies on radiation and health. She explained that the radiation in Fukushima did not seem too bad, that any health risk would at most apply to the unfortunate emergency workers at the nuclear plant, and that it would be enough to evacuate only those in the immediate area.

‘One thing we should have learnt post-Chernobyl’, Thomas continued, ‘is not to spread panic and make claims that turn out to be wrong. The psychological damage being done now to the Japanese is huge.’

Ten years after the events, not one reporter paid attention to those who had lost loved ones in the natural disaster

In March 2021, as the media looked back in detail at the events of ten years earlier, researcher Mirjam Vossen noticed something after studying 35 articles from newspapers in the Netherlands: almost all were about the aftermath of the nuclear plant accident; the natural disaster was covered ‘at most in passing’.

Journalists spoke to people who lived near the nuclear plant and had to move. Not one reporter paid attention to those who had lost loved ones in the natural disaster. Reports and interviews never came from areas further away, where the tsunami had hit much harder. By the way, closer to the epicentre there were a number of nuclear plants. Nobody ever heard about them because those facilities had not caused any problems.

‘One-sided and misleading,’ Vossen judged. The media researcher must have been in an amiable mood.

In the festival of flaws, the biggest error came from the Evening News of Dutch public broadcaster NOS. The anchor managed to mix up the sequence of events: ‘Ten years ago was the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, followed by a tsunami.’

It was of all media outlets De Telegraaf, known as the most sensationalist tabloid in the Netherlands, that offered context and perspective by interviewing Geraldine Thomas. She aptly summarised the scientific consensus: ‘Nobody died from radiation released in Fukushima, and nobody will die from it.’

This is an edited excerpt from Marco Visscher's 2022 book Waarom we niet bang hoeven te zijn voor kernenergie (Why we need not fear nuclear power).


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