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Fukushima: the future is unknown, but the present is terrible enough

We must not let our fear of the potential risks of radiation eclipse the real and present dangers the Japanese people face

Of all the grim headlines to have emerged from Japan in recent weeks, this one on the Kyodo newswire was particularly disturbing: "Up to 1,000 bodies left untouched near troubled nuke plant". It followed reports that police abandoned the corpse of a tsunami fatality in Fukushima because leaks from the broken reactors made it dangerously radioactive to carry. They bagged the body and left it in a building; a burial or cremation will have to wait until radioactivity diminishes. Their action was a gruesome illustration of how disaster victims are being put to one side while the world is gripped by fear of a meltdown.

The explosions and radiation leaks at the nuclear plant have dominated coverage of Japan's multiple catastrophe, although they have so far resulted in far fewer casualties than the earthquake and tsunami. This is frustrating to anyone who has seen the situation in the evacuation shelters, where the need for food, fuel and care is enormous. It is also disappointing because humanitarian disasters are among those rare occasions when the media are actually useful. Reporters can put a face on disaster, identify needs, and sometimes fill in the information gaps left by overstretched emergency services. They can also help to drum up humanitarian assistance. This time that is also being done by microblogs, including Quakebook, a Twitter sourced charity book that will be published within days.

So why has the media focus remained on less tangible nuclear fears? The old media adage "If it bleeds, it leads", was clearly not the deciding factor. The problems at the plant have not yet resulted in a single fatality, whereas the 28,000 people dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami make it Japan's deadliest disaster since the war.

The shifts of the earth and ocean on 11 March reset the scales of modern catastrophe. The magnitude nine quake (one of the five most powerful ever recorded) and the 30m to 40m tsunami (the highest ever seen in Japan) caused more economic damage than any disaster man has known. They pulverised several hundred kilometres of coastline and left up to 400,000 people homeless. Fewer than a third are nuclear evacuees.

Conventional news values would normally suggest the strongest images are given precedence, but not in this case. There is little that can compare to the videos of the black wall of water crashing through cities or the eerie aftermath of ships beached in carparks. Yet these powerful scenes have been pushed aside by a radioactive threat we cannot see.

The proximity of fear offers a clue as to why. The nuclear crisis hits closer to home. There is a far higher chance of a reactor accident than a tsunami in most countries, particularly in Europe and North America. But, strangely, the degree of panic seemed to be in inverse proportion to proximity to the reactors. At one point, people in Sendai (80km away) were going about their business as usual while embassies and firms in Tokyo (200km away) were frantically evacuating personnel. And shoppers in China (1,000km away) were fighting one another for salt (wrongly believed to be an antidote to radiation). The difference in the reactions suggests media messages are being distorted and amplified.

I read that those who evacuated from Tokyo absorbed four times more radiation on their flights than they would have done if they had stayed. Even now, the peak number of microsieverts per hour in central Tokyo last Thursday remained only slightly higher than that of London and New York. This is not to dismiss the threat. Nobody can predict what will happen next, because we have not been here before. This novelty, more than anything, explains why the nuclear angle has pushed the continuing human suffering in Japan off the front pages.

The media loves fresh meat. We have had earthquakes and tsunamis before, but we have never consumed a multiple meltdown threat quite like this. The efforts to contain the leak have been horrifyingly compelling – both extraordinarily brave and yet, given the enormity of the problem and the improvised nature of the countermeasures, touchingly inadequate. Until the threat posed is clear, we must watch it closely.

While doing so we should not lose sight of suffering and need. I was spooked several times during my stint in the disaster area as reports came in of explosions at the reactors, and friends urged me to get out. But expert advice suggested the radiation risk was tolerable if we kept a decent distance. A bigger concern was the shortage of food and fuel, which took hours to find each day. I have never felt so acutely humanity's dependence on fossil fuels. Without oil, there was a very real risk of society grinding to a halt. For those in the shelters, of course, the situation was much worse. So far, they have coped in extraordinary conditions, but like the nuclear crisis, we should not forget that the humanitarian challenge is not over.

 ワッツ記者が最後に提起した、「we should not forget that the humanitarian challenge is not over」は今の災害後の混乱がいまだに終息せずに、被災者の支援が遅れているという異常事態に世界がようやく気づいたということだと考える。


 日本滞在20年を超す外国人の友人が、の新聞紙面で、Duke UniversityHarry Harootunian教授による、「Crisis mismanagement」という記事を読んだそう。友人曰く、「一行一行は正しく感じたにもかかわらず、全文を読み終わったら、まったく納得できなかったよ」とのこと。ネット上で見つけられるかどうか画策中。



- ハマちゃん



The media loves fresh meat. We have had earthquakes and tsunamis before, but we have never consumed a multiple meltdown threat quite like this.

2011.04.07 Thu 13:34 URL [ Edit ]

- 守屋

ハマちゃん さん


2011.04.07 Thu 17:28 URL [ Edit ]

- ハマちゃん


「World」の面にすら出てなくて「East Asia」まで開いて行くとようやく記事が見つかる、程度。


The media loves fresh meat. We have had earthquakes and tsunamis before, but we have never consumed a multiple meltdown threat quite like this.

2011.04.08 Fri 14:19 URL [ Edit ]

- 守屋

ハマちゃん さん


2011.04.08 Fri 18:25 URL [ Edit ]


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