The Japan tsunami: the second anniversary of a literally earth-shaking event

On March 11, 2011, 4589 days ago, Japan’s northeast coast was struck by a tsunami of unprecedented violence. The tsunami had been triggered by an earthquake so powerful that it shifted the earth’s mass and sped up its rotation about its axis, literally shortening the length of each day. Watch this video, filmed live from an NHK World helicopter; it is just terrifying. And remember, that is water from the north Pacific and it’s March. It can’t be much warmer than about 5 or 10 °C.

Incredibly, this vast destruction, in which tens of thousands of human beings lost their lives and hundreds of thousands their homes, did not get the bulk of the world media’s attention. The world media were fixated on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a six-unit station at which three units melted down because the tsunami had wrecked their backup cooling power supply. This resulted in radiation levels that were elevated from the normal background, but still so low that they have failed to produce, in the 4589 days since the meltdowns began, a single human casualty—and that includes the on-site workers who brought the situation back under control.

At the time, bewildered by this spectacle and dismayed by the apparent non-interest in real human stories that were playing out by the hundreds of thousands all along Japan’s northeast coast, I called that misplaced fixation Yellow Journalism. That may have been a bit strong: there was of course lots of excellent coverage of the Japan crisis that did not focus on Fukushima. Paul Hunter of CBC did an excellent series. In this segment, his focus is on tsunami preparedness and survival; he does not even mention the nuclear situation until four minutes have elapsed, and even then it seems more obligatory than from-the-gut.

But Paul Hunter’s series was, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule. On balance, I don’t think my initial reaction was too far off. I don’t often quote Wikipedia, but the Wikipedia definition of Yellow Journalism fits most international media coverage of the non-fatal Fukushima nuclear situation almost perfectly:

Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.

The international media know that headlines containing the word “nuclear” are sure sellers. So they put “nuclear” into their headlines as often as possible. Fukushima for them was like manna from heaven.

Unfortunately, in fixating on the non-fatal nuclear situation, they neglected the hundreds of thousands of real human beings whose lives were either destroyed or irrevocably altered by the real disaster, the tsunami shown in the video above.

This is not to say the nuclear crisis should not have been covered at all. But the media skipped the opportunity to actually research, for example, why nobody has died from radiation in the 4589 days since the meltdowns.

Maybe if they did, interviews with anti-nuclear “experts” who have been crying wolf since forever about a technology that in OECD countries has in its fifty-plus-year history produced about two casualties—and who have told any reporter who would print or broadcast their words that Fukushima is equivalent to Doomsday—might have been more interesting.

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James Greenidge
10 years ago

This should be on a page one column in every American paper. It will be interesting to see how the mass media covers the anniversary and the “consultants” they’ll dig up who’ll explain that the fat lady hasn’t sung yet regarding the nuclear “crisis”. Just as dismaying though is that in these last two years, neither the nuclear “industry” (nor their individual plant management), nor the nuclear professional organizations or atomic workers unions have come up with an aggressive public nuclear education campaign via TV programming or PSAs. This why tomorrow on the 11th the anti-nukers will run amok with their hypocritical nuclear health/safety rants before eagerly sympathetic media cameras flashing Fukushima Geiger-counter tots and make the mountain that nuclear acceptance has to climb that much higher. BTW, I just don’t buy the polls that Americans are largely “for” nuclear power. More accuracy their unrecorded punchlines is “…yea, several states away!” I don’t call it positive acceptance of nuclear power when citizens aren’t comfortable with plants cited just outside the city like they are with oil and LNG. This is the time to challenge challenge challenge the FUD-dites and proudly hawk the historically nil mortality/public damage record of nuke plants and its non-polluting small footprint nature friendly virtues and compare casualty rates with other industries, but instead it’s likely that by tomorrow night the public will have been stroked just a little but more fearful and doubting by totally unchallenged off-the-wall anti-nuclear proponents.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

10 years ago

Steve, thanks for all the work around this issue and all the tweets.

The radioactivity in the “red” zone around Fukushima is now less that what I measured during an airplane trip to Toronto!

Here’s what I tweeted to point back here (hard to fit everything in 140char!) :

2y after tens of thousands of lives, lost we’re still focusing on ZERO lost of life #Nuclear. Shame on the media & US