Fearmongers Go Into Nuclear Meltdown

By Brendan O'Neill

It is testament to the ascendancy of apocalyptic thinking that many are now looking at Japan and thinking: "Will it get even worse?"

It is not enough, apparently, that there has been a monumental tragedy, with thousands of people killed by the tsunami that was unleashed by Friday's earthquake.

No, many observers are now fantasising about a possible meltdown at a nuclear energy station that was badly shaken by the quake, which apparently could give rise to a radioactive holocaust that would make nature's fury look like a tea party in comparison.

The speed and gritty determination with which Western reporters and experts myopically turned their gaze to the nuclear power station in Fukushima in northern Japan has been extraordinary.

And it has been driven not by hard evidence that there will be a devastating radioactive leak, but by a culture of fear which feverishly seeks out the worst-case scenario; by an almost pornographic apocalyptic outlook unsatisfied by the images of waves of water wiping away towns and villages - no, it needs a nuclear component to this tragedy too.

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It is worth putting the instability at the Fukushima plant into some perspective.

Yes, it is profoundly worrying when a nuclear reactor experiences serious problems. Despite the fact that the tremor on Friday triggered an automatic shutdown of Fukushima, along with 11 of Japan's other nuclear reactors, still workers struggled to get things under control.

Once Fukushima was automatically disconnected from Japan's national energy grid, it became reliant on its diesel-powered emergency generators for the purposes of keeping cool and safe.

However, these generators failed, and so workers at Fukushima used mobile generators, trucked-in seawater and the trick of releasing some radioactive vapour (which is not harmful to the environment or humans) to try to keep the plant as normal as possible.

Yet while they managed to get one of Fukushima's working reactors under control, two others proved more problematic. And on Saturday, there was a huge explosion at the power station, which injured four workers and gave rise to headlines around the world about a possible "nuclear apocalypse".

Yes, the situation at Fukushima is serious and still unpredictable. But the things that we do know for certain suggest that the Western media's obsession with what is happening there is seriously overblown and reveals more about us and our fears than it does about the reality on the ground in Japan.

For instance, Japanese officials have confirmed that while the explosion caused the partial collapse of the concrete building around one of the nuclear reactors, still the steel container that houses the reactor has not been damaged. Yes, there was an increase in the radioactive elements caesium-137 and iodine-131 in the vicinity of the troublesome reactors, but these elements have "since been observed to lessen".

We also know that, in the words of the World Health Organisation, the risk to the public from a radiation leak at Fukushima is "probably quite low". However, to be on the safe side, the Japanese authorities swiftly evacuated nearly 200,000 people from a 20km radius around the nuclear plant, which should ensure that, in the event of a leak, no civilians will come to any serious harm.

We also know that, despite the hysterical headlines claiming that there could be "another Chernobyl", in fact the Fukushima plant is very different from the one in the Ukraine which experienced a serious accident in 1986. A Russian nuclear expert said this week that a "Chernobyl-like disaster in Japan is impossible", since there is no graphite at Fukushima, as there was at Chernobyl, and therefore "there is nothing to burn there".

Moreover, if the explosion at Fukushima already makes this the "third-worst nuclear accident in history" - as we're told - then it's worth noting the two other accidents were not as terrible as we're often led to believe.

Following the accident at Chernobyl, anti-nuclear campaigners claimed that up to 25,000 people would die as a result of radiation poisoning. In truth, as of 2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to the radiation released by the accident, most of them among highly exposed rescue workers.

The other worst accident was the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. Yet this caused no direct deaths, though some experts believe that "one or two" cancer-related deaths in the vicinity may have been linked to meltdown.

So if nuclear accidents have never proved as terrible as Hollywood movies promise, and if it is true that, so far, the problems in Japan's nuclear reactors have been brought under some kind of control, why has there been such an outpouring of media-led panic about a possible radioactive fallout that could spread through Asia and even as far as Europe?

Because this coverage is being driven more by the politics of fear than by rigorous analysis.

Because our apocalyptic mindset is insatiable; it needs even more than the terrible images already coming from Japan.

And because the post-tsunami problems are being disgracefully exploited by environmentalist groups opposed to nuclear power, including Greenpeace, which published an article on Fukushima called "The myth of nuclear containment".

The result is that the Western focus is mostly on one nuclear power plant in a country in which entire towns have been destroyed and thousands of people killed. The politics of fear has made us so irrational and self-obsessed that we risk becoming deaf to the already occurring horrors in Japan.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked online.

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