Do you remember the morning-to-night media coverage of the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, beginning in March 2011 and lasting for what seemed like forever? More than 20,000 people died as a result of a massive earthquake and subsequent enormous tsunami, but those two natural disasters were not what captured the most attention in the media.
The media fixated on “experts” volunteering doomsday scenarios for Japan as rerun after rerun of hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants filled the airwaves.
VISITORS TO JAPAN were advised to leave. Entertainment groups touring Japan cancelled performances even though they were scheduled several hundred miles away from the nuclear reactor sites. Many Americans in Tokyo fled the country as fast as they could book seats on transcontinental flights back to the United States – flights that exposed these Americans to larger doses of radiation than they would have received had they stayed in Japan.
Hysterical anti-nuclear alarmists were having a field day as they were in great demand on news programs and talk shows. Their dire predictions of latent cancer deaths because of the radiation releases numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Some even questioned the habitability of Japan. Over time, the media circus gradually lost steam, with only occasional reference to the “nuclear disaster.”
There can be no mistaking the seriousness with which nuclear advocates viewed the events at Fukushima, but the human tragedy stemmed from the enormous one-two punch of Mother Nature and the fear propagated by sensational media coverage, not from radiation releases from the nuclear reactors. These facts became clear at the end of May 2013 with the issuance of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report on the health effects of the events at Fukushima.
IN A NUTSHELL, the conclusions of the report are that lingering health effects are negligible and no deaths are attributed to radiation – including workers at the plants and the general public. You aren’t likely to read about this in many newspapers, on your computer’s home page or hear about it on your favorite news program. After all, a lot of righteous indignation was expended vilifying the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Japanese government, and the nuclear industry in general for months after the events of March 2011, and to admit that there was in fact no harm because of radiation releases inspires comparisons to Chicken Little.
Even though this report finds no significant health effects because of radiation releases, it is undeniable that the fear of radiation is far more potent with respect to health effects than the radiation itself. Health effects related to fear of radiation and to stress of evacuation and relocation affected thousands of people. The UNSCEAR report acknowledges this effect just as it did in its 25-year study of the Chernobyl disaster, in which it attributes 62 deaths to radiation-related causes, including about half that number who were first responders. That report concluded that residents of the areas affected by Chernobyl fallout need not live in fear of lasting health effects because of radiation exposure.
BY FAR THE most tragic human health toll from Chernobyl was the 100,000 to 200,000 elective abortions chosen by prospective parents who feared radiation damage to their unborn. UNSCEAR’s follow-up study on the effects of the Chernobyl accident on the unborn showed those fears were unfounded.
I submit that the accused – TEPCO, the Japanese government and the nuclear industry – are guilty of not having figured out how to communicate nuclear issues to the public effectively. But communication is not a unilateral exercise. There have to be open receptors on the part of all parties if real communication is to happen.
Therefore, I also submit that anti-nuclear ideologues, aided and abetted by the media, have struck such fear into those who do not understand nuclear-related issues that they have stymied effective communication on these issues and are, therefore, responsible for enormous human suffering and loss of life.
Public news media could do a great public service by reporting on the findings of the UNSCEAR report. Don’t hold your breath.
(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.)