FUDushima continued

Paul Raven @ 21-03-2011

I appear to have lost my original source for the tweet that pointed me to this piece at Talking Points Memo, so my apologies for the lack of attribution; I think it’s been doing the rounds, and – if there’s any justice on the intertubes – it should continue doing so (preferably at high volume), in the hope that it might counteract even a small part of the underinformed lipflapping about the Fukushima reactor. So: excerpts from a letter to TPM from a Japanese student who was in the country for the quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before.


There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole.


Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

I don’t think I need to add anything to that, really. But as a side-dish, here’s Tim Maly on the half-life of information in the 24-hour newschurn:

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.

It is completely insane that countries are announcing that they are scaling back or cancelling nuclear programs based on Japan’s troubles. If those programs were a good idea two weeks ago they are still a good idea now. And if they might have been converted from a good idea to a bad idea based on evidence coming out of Japan then smart decision makers need to wait until the information has the stability and solidity of data that will support a decade/century scale decision.

As a number of people have said to me over the last week or so, there surely needs to be new debate and research into nuclear safety.However, it needs to be done by experts in the field in question, with as much verifiable information as possible, as opposed to being done by uninformed television anchors with a five-minute Physics 101 briefing tucked in their suit pocket.

We have access to an utterly unprecedented volume and rate of information flow. Unless we learn to filter for the truth, we’ll drown in lies.

[ And yeah, I make mistakes from time to time; I’m making no claims to perfection here, and I learn a lot from sharp people in the comment threads, for which I’m grateful. It’s a collaborative effort, really… which is another thing we’d do well to remember as we look at problems overseas and worry about how they’ll effect us. ]

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2 Responses to “FUDushima continued”

  1. robert renling berencreuz says:

    The discussion boils down to this:
    Nuclear “safety” needs a)to be redefined b) what’s in the word “safety” c) how do we build safer reactors.

    i have my opinions about a & b
    but to me the most important part is this, why are we 50 years later, still using uranium xor plutonium reactors when there’s a perfectly decent alternative with a metric fuckton of perks in using molten salt reactors (again safety, longevity and ability to entirely annihilate toxic waste & for instance, plutonium waste)
    I’m not pulling a veil over my eyes in regard to this, its the most viable powersource, but why are we relying on those two reactor technologies when the only perk involved is the ability to weaponize the biproduct?


  2. SpeakerToManagers says:

    Thanks for a little rationality on the topic of the “nuclear crisis”. It’s very clear from the wording of most of the news coverage in the US and Europe (the use of nouns like “disaster” and “crisis” and adjectives like “desperate”, “frantic”, and “perilous”, and phrases like “it will be like Chernobyl on steroids”) that what’s important to the news media is sensationalism and not information. I’ve tried in various posts to point people at reasonably reliable sources of information like the IAEA website, but most people seem to be more interested in the ill-informed guesses and poor interpretations of official statements that are passed off as expert opinion. One question I’ve asked, and not yet gotten an answer to, is “Why do we need to have instant opinions on the ongoing status of the reactors, when nothing we who are not involved in fixing the problems can do makes any difference to the situation?”

    It seems to me that one of the most common failings in this situation has been an unwillingness to wait for reliable information, and a willingness to accept or create unreliable and often completely fallacious narratives just to keep the conversation going. That’s bad enough when you’re gossiping about the sexual and political quirks of your friends and neighbors; it’s much worse when you’re taking about issues that will affect the health and safety of whole civilizations over the next century or two.

    I have seen many examples of one sort of response to the situation that makes me wonder about the competence of supposedly intelligent and well-educated people. It goes something like: “I really don’t know much about nuclear physics or engineering, but it’s obvious to me the solution is X and I can’t understand why the Japanese engineers are doing Y instead. They must be incompetent.” That sort of thinking is not going to be very useful in making decisions about complicated technical and social issues that face us today.