Nihon nuclear news

Can I be honest?  I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to be blogging about the situation in Japan (or Nihon, as it is known to itself, at least when transliterated into the roman alphabet).  I don’t think there’s much to be gained from some fat, bespectacled voyeur on the far side of the world (that would be me…) airing his ignorant and ill-informed opinions about things he doesn’t really know much about (not that ignorance has ever stopped me offering an opinion on this blog before …).

But if there’s one thing I think I can blog about, it’s the way the crises are being reported over here.  I think (I hope…) doing that isn’t disrespectful to the dead or the survivors, and I don’t think it detracts attention from what needs doing in Japan.  Kind of the opposite, in fact, although I don’t actually think my little blog will make any difference to anything.  The main point I want to make is that the coverage over here has focussed to an absurd degree on the situation at the nuclear plant.

Chernobyl, as we all know, was the worst nuclear disaster there’s ever been (well, the worst accidental one – the bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a great deal worse).  According to something I read (sorry I don’t have the link, but I have read literally hundreds of articles from all over the place, it was a reference in passing, and the chances of me finding it again are effectively zero), the total number of deaths directly attributable to the Chernobyl disaster are expected to ultimately reach something in the order of 6,000 people.*  That’s an appalling loss of life, but let’s put it in context.  The confirmed death toll for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami stands, at the time of writing, at 6,911, and it may reach as high as 17,000, if all the people currently listed as missing are dead.  In other words, even if the Fukushima disaster were to somehow reach the scale of the Chernobyl disaster, the death toll spanning decades will amount to fewer than the number of people killed in the few minutes the earthquake and tsunami were active.

In reality, of course, the Fukushima disaster cannot possibly be as bad as Chernobyl was.  These are some of the things I’ve learned over the last week (though keep in mind I’m no expert, and have no relevant qualifications, and may inadvertently be talking through my arse):

  • Chernobyl exploded while nuclear fission was still taking place (in fact, it may have been a nuclear explosion), meaning highly radioactive by-products of the reaction were produced directly in the open air; at Fukushima the fission reaction was shut down automatically within seconds of the earthquake beginning, and any radiation release will be the result of nuclear decay, not ongoing fission.
  • In normal operation, Chernobyl relied on graphite contained within the core to facilitate the fission reaction, during the disaster the graphite caught fire, and burned for days, lofting radioactive particles high into the atmosphere, and dramatically increasing the spread of radiation; Fukushima relied on water instead of graphite to do this job, hence the possibility of fire in the core is substantially reduced, and, even if one or more of the reactors were to explode, the lack of significant fire would sharply limit the spread of radioactive material.
  • The explosion of the reactor core at Chernobyl was so serious because it had no containment designed to protect the environment in the event of a catastrophic problem; at Fukushima the containment remains largely intact, though there are fears it may have cracked.
  • The very high death toll from Chernobyl largely resulted from the fact that the authorities suppressed information about the event, failed to evacuate nearby towns, and allowed the consumption of contaminated food and water for several days, meaning tens of thousands of people were exposed to high doses of radiation when this could have been avoided; at Fukushima, the evacuation of (most of) the population took place before any significant release of radiation.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an advocate for nuclear power (though I’m not a knee-jerk opponent either).  I can’t help but notice the significant contrast between the news coming out of Fukushima and the news coming out of Islay, where turbines on the sea floor will soon be generating electricity from tidal flows without any environmental damage (beyond that caused during construction).  Things have already become nasty enough at Fukushima, and still have the potential to get worse, especially if they aren’t able to keep the spent fuel assemblies submerged in water.  And then, of course, there’s what’s always seemed to me the clinching argument against nuclear power – the fact that we somehow have to ensure the safe keeping of highly radioactive materials for a period of time longer than we’ve existed as a species.  It’s almost certain our existing civilizations will have collapsed long before then, and we may even have gone extinct, so the chances of us being able to ensure no-one is harmed by our nuclear waste would seem to be slim.

My point here, however, is that the scope for significant loss of life as a result of the nuclear crisis is low, and massively dwarfed by the loss of life directly resulting from the earthquake and the tsunami.  There have already been two major humanitarian disasters in Japan, the quake and the wave, and a third is shaping up – but it won’t take the form of a nuclear disaster, it’ll be the result of disease and malnutrition spreading through the devastated areas of the country.  While the world’s media have been focussing much of their attention on the question of what’s happening inside the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, they’ve been focusing almost none of it on other, fairly basic, questions.

Questions such as “Where are people shitting?”  Sorry to reduce this to a scatological level, but this is actually a really important question.  Without efficient disposal of sewage, the spread of disease is almost inevitable.  There are apparently already reports of outbreaks of diarrhoea in some of the evacuation centres (information was in a live blog, probably either the BBC’s or The Guardian’s, but I don’t have the link for this, either – sorry).  Diarrhoea maybe doesn’t sound serious, but when you have people already surviving on small amounts of food – the BBC news last night showed a relief centre in which people receive one meal a day, and that consists of half a rice ball – the loss of nutrients that result from diarrhoea can be serious.  When you add in the fact that this is happening to people who are already vulnerable, such as the elderly and the very young, the possibility for significant loss of life exists.

And this, of course, is just one of the threats people face.  Other diseases are circulating – I’ve seen reports of a spike in cases of flu (another ‘minor’ illness that can be very dangerous to vulnerable people).  Then there’s hypothermia resulting from people trying to survive in sub-zero temperatures without proper shelter, or adequate clothing (many people only have the clothes they were wearing when the disaster struck), or any form of heating.  (I saw Matt Frei last night, on the BBC, wrapped up warm in his winter coat, and saying that snow was ‘adding to the misery’ for the survivors; no, Matt, it’s killing them.)  Also, let’s not forget plain straightforward malnutrition.  And to top it all off, even if people make it to a hospital, they have access to doctors and heat – but not to medicine or food or clean water, because all of those are running in drastically short supply.

It’s not a surprise, of course, that the news media are concentrating on the nuclear angle.  It’s pretty much an ideal story: it’s a highly volatile situation, with things changing from minute to minute; rolling news networks can fill acres of airtime with interviews with a million interchangeable experts; there’s good footage, with the shots of explosions, and helicopters dumping water; and, best of all, the story has resonance for people back home – earthquakes and tsunami are unlikely in the UK, but a coolant failure at a nuclear reactor, that might just happen.  Compared to that, the other stuff is hard to report, and difficult to illustrate.  All the dramatic images of the quake and the wave are in the past; the ‘scenes of unimaginable destruction’, as the aftermath is invariably described on the news, start to look samey after a while.

I’m always pretty ambivalent about the presence of the news media in disaster zones.  I can’t help but feel, as I watch a journalist with a cameraman and a translator and probably a driver interview someone about how they have no food and no water, that the vehicle and fuel used to transport the news crew might have been put to better use transporting supplies on the journey in, and refugees on the journey out.  That feeling is even more intense in a situation like this, where there isn’t even a substantial need to stimulate the public into making donations that will be helpful in the long run – Japan is not a third-world country, and it won’t be totally reliant on outside support to rebuild itself.

News stories still have to be told, of course, and news-gathering requires journalists on the ground.  Maybe I’d feel more comfortable about their presence if I didn’t worry that the news agenda they’ve been pursuing – the relentless focus on the nuclear situation – might actually be making things worse.  I noted several days ago that the Japanese Prime Minister announced he was taking personal charge of the situation at Fukushima – and even allowed foreign journalists to ‘accidentally’ overhear him criticising engineers working for the power company – but he doesn’t seem to have taken ownership of the problems with distributing emergency supplies in quite the same way.  It would be a shame if the media’s misdirected attention had lead to him concentrating on the lesser problem at the expense of the more serious one.

* – Wikipedia quotes estimates for the deaths resulting from the Chernobyl disaster ranging from 4,000 up to 1,000,000, which is a truly extraordinary range; my guess is that behind the scenes fighting between pro- and anti- nuclear editors probably makes this one of those ‘hot-button’ topics that Wikipedia struggles to cover accurately.

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