Fukushima and the Feedback Loop of Fear

Let me preface this by saying I am not an expert in nuclear reactors or nuclear physics. However, I do know a thing or two about the media. The situation in Japan is serious. Very serious. And it could get worse still. But it is not the doomsday scenario being peddled by the media.

A concerned friend recently sent me a new story from Business Insider about the recent developments at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The long, rambling article, which highlighted particularly scary phrases in red text, began by reporting that “The state of panic around the world is palpable”. It occurs to me that when you are repeatedly publishing news stories that cause panic, reporting that there is consequently a state of panic seems somewhat poor journalism. This is exactly the feedback loop of fear that is characterising this incident.

Today the media narrative shifted today to say that radiation is now “harmful to human health”. A cursory look at the headlines would seem to bear this out. However, scratching the surface we get a more nuanced scenario. Dr Paddy Reagan, a nuclear physicist at Surrey University said a few hours ago on BBC News that while it was true that levels were now harmful to human health, you’d have to be deep inside the exclusion zone, in fact he said you’d need to be standing next to the reactor for an hour to even get radiation sickness.

The media feeds on public ignorance of radiation levels and what they mean.  What if I said that there had been a permanent increase in background of radiation of 36 µSv (microsieverts). Pretty scary yeah? Not when you consider that’s the equivalent of eating a Banana a day for a year (The deadly Yellow Fruit often triggers airport radiation detectors because of high potassium 40 content.)

That the Japanese authorities are telling to people to say indoors is equal parts caution and public reassurance, both to make them feel like they can do something and also to reduce the risk of a mass panic or be accused of a cover-up. And perhaps I am trapped in Groundhog Day, but for the past four day news outlets are reporting that Japanese officials have admitted “for the first time” there could be a partial meltdown. Partial meltdown was always a risk, hence the prolonged campaign to cool the reactor by any means necessary. The media reports this “for the first time” line as a way of making the situation seem as if it has escalated more than it has.

The word “meltdown” is another terror trigger as it is equated with the horror-story of Chernobyl. However, as re-iterated in a number of dry, technical, physics blogs in the past few days, such a meltdown is not possible at Fukushima. A partial meltdown is not exactly great news, and every precaution should, and is, being taken to prevent it, but it is not utterly cataclysmic either. It will certainly not be as devastating for the environment as the Deep-water Horizon incident, for instance.

I’d love to blame the (boo hiss) mainstream media for perpetuating this panic, but the alternative media from across the political spectrum is just as culpable in perpetuating lazy rumours, half-truths and hysteria. The anti-nuclear movement has whipped itself into a distasteful “told you so” frenzy and are doing their best to make things seem worse than they are.  Of course, they claim there is a cover-up, because some of them desperately want this to be worse than it actually is because it would suit their political agenda.

The new-right, as characterised by Glenn Beck style conspiracy theories, are mirroring the left in claiming there is a massive cover up by the Japanese Government, despite the fact that covering up a huge nuclear incident is not possible (see Chernobyl) because of, you know, massive clouds of radiation and stuff. Conspiracy theory High Ayatollah Alex Jones, who is no stranger to fear-mongering (last week, he reported that the New World Order could kill you via the Television) – is claiming that this is “by far the worst” nuclear disaster ever, and that they hydrogen explosions at Fukushima were in fact some kind of other, unspecified, but somehow more terrifying type of explosion.

Human perception of risk is warped. Nuclear power is much like flying by plane. By and large, it is the safest option, but when it goes wrong, it does so spectacularly, and because of this, public perception of its dangers are heightened. The long term consequences risks of coal power is much worse than nuclear (a devastated planet is worse than a devastated square mile or two) but it is harder to grasp as its risks are not “event” based.

To summarise, Japan has some serious problems on its plate. It just got hit by one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history, followed by a tsunami and at least one volcano. Aftershocks are still to come. The nuclear reactor problems it has on top of this – there is no other word – “clusterfuck” – are serious and should not be understated, but equally, they should not be overstated.

We do ourselves no favours by giving in to sensationalism.