Magazine article The Spectator

Media Meltdown

Magazine article The Spectator

Media Meltdown

Article excerpt

The extraordinary images from Japan over the past week evoke not only sympathy but awe. The damage wreaked by the natural disasters, in both human and economic terms, has been colossal. Entire communities have been reduced to little more than shattered glass and driftwood. The death toll is already well into the thousands, with more bodies being washed up on the country's shores each day. Yet what we see in Japan is not despair; it is an extraordinary stoicism. Strangers helping each other as if they were family. A nation pulling together.

The hysteria has come not from the Japanese people, but from the rest of the world.

The tsunami's death toll may run into the tens of thousands, yet western attention is instead fixated on the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Even as the plant's workforce continued to toil around its stricken reactors, western observers were dusting off a lexicon that had rarely been touched since the Chernobyl disaster. Words like 'fallout' and 'meltdown' have been used at every opportunity.

The tone at times has been of morbid anticipation.

What is happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant is certainly worrying. The Japanese have evacuated thousands of people from danger zones, and American warships have nudged away from Japan's coast in an act of nervous self-preservation. The situation could deteriorate as new fires and fresh explosions tear through the plant and its reactors. But this does not explain or excuse the extraordinary language from the European energy commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, who declared that 'there is talk of an apocalypse' - a word which, he said, 'is particularly well chosen'.

Such hyperbole ignores how surprisingly well Japan's nuclear power stations have held up so far. Despite one of the most ferocious earthquakes in recorded history and a 30 ft wave, a handful of old nuclear reactors have remained largely intact and released only small quantities of radiation into the environment.

This is not to dismiss the danger. There have been a series of spectacular explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but casualties have been relatively light. The current tally stands at two missing, 15 injured and some cases of radiation sickness. While tragic, these casualties are dwarfed by the suffering elsewhere in the country.

Outside the European Parliament, many scientists give a more sober assessment of the situation. 'In the worst-case scenario, we could be looking at another Three Mile Island, ' is how Laurence Williams, Professor of Nuclear Safety at the University of Central Lancashire, put it during a recent press conference. …

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