Disaster News and some Armchair Ranting…

After the short and factual update of last weekend, time for some more random notes and observations about the current post-seismic events unfolding in Japan.

Beware: it is slightly rantish. But one can only take so much uninformed stupidity by foreign media and unproductive, if well-meaning at times, panicky news and concern spread through social networks… Brace yourself for some pissed-off soothing anger. All brought to you from the safe comfort of my Kyoto abode: hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers away from the nearest active fault line, sea front or failing nuclear reactor.

So… First and foremost: if you are a Japan-residing foreigner who does not live in the directly-hit Tohoku area or within walking distance of Fukushima nuclear reactors (both unlikely if you are reading this): chill. the. fuck. out.

This was one of the biggest earthquake in history, but it did not occur in Tokyo (thank the gods). Shindo 5 quakes as the one that was felt in Tokyo are not a once-in-a-century event, they happen all over Japan at least once a decade. And this is why destruction was minimal in Tokyo. If you live in Kanto and are unsure of what real destruction means: take a look out your window, now have a look at NHK feeds from the Sendai area. Notice a difference? Perhaps the lack of 50m-long fishing boat couched in the middle of the street, or the fact that every single building around you is still standing. My point is not to say it wasn’t a bad one in Tokyo, just that it wasn’t the one. And people living where it happened had it much, much worse. So please can we avoid the tearful airport arrivals of foreigners freshly repatriated from their minato-ku apartment, bawling on international news as if they had just survived World War 3.

Most of the serious consequences for Tokyo and the greater Kanto area stem only from actual destruction and chaos in areas that were directly hit by the brunt of the earthquake: power shortage and disruption in transport. That and people panicking and hoarding first-necessities. These disruptions make life hell, but they certainly do not threaten your health and will only improve with time. Stop watching haphasardly-translated, inaccuracy-riddled, foreign news reports and take a cue on your Japanese neighbours: Life goes on.

If you feel like taking some time off and visiting friends or relatives in quieter areas of Japan: go for it. It certainly won’t hurt you to come enjoy a few early-Spring days in Kyoto and check out some temples. But keep in mind that, as far as cost and risk go, you are objectively more likely to die in a silly traffic accident on your way there, than in anything earthquake- or nuclear-related, staying home in Tokyo (that is: neither of these are very likely altogether).

“What about our generation’s very-own Chernobyl/Three Mile Island event, then? Surely the fear of Nuclear Apocalypse is reason-enough to panic and launch on a mass exodus along the Tōkaidō?”

Because nuclear events are a lot more politicised (in either direction) than boring, unrelatable, news about earthquakes and tsunamis in faraway lands, practically all foreign media have moved most of their focus to the recent cooling issues at the Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants. Never mind the fact that the casualty ratio is somewhere between 10,000 and infinity less than the actual earthquake: if you read German [or French, or most other Western country’s] news, you’d think all of Japan is busy averting nuclear apocalypse, while a handful people just had a good shake and a fright further up north. Seriously. Thousands of people dead or stranded, entire cities washed away… and US news are concerned about Three Mile Island residents’ feel about their security.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Japanese officials have a very bad record on transparent communication when major health disasters strike (even more so when nuclear is involved, given its politically controversial nature). However, by all accounts, communication has been a lot more forthcoming than in past similar incidents: while obviously doing everything they can to minimise the risk of panic, officials have given unusually open-ended description of current events and their hypothetical developments. Leading more than one foreign newspaper to jump directly from “might happen” (可能性がある) to “will happen”, and quickly thereafter “has practically certainly happened”. Despite the original source remaining the same.

If you think I am joking, go check yesterday’s edition of western newspapers (Monday morning, JST): I woke up to foreign headlines announcing that the meltdown had occurred and/or was underway. Based, it turned out, on PM Naoto Kan‘s speech, the day before at 6pm, raising the hypothesis that it might have happened… A hypothesis ruled off in a follow-up, less than 3 hours later, yet featured on English-speaking front pages, the following morning.

I am not a nuclear physicist, but the amount of factual inaccuracies and scientific imbecilities I am picking from a casual reading of the news makes me wonder if I am the only one who ever attended High school physics. To say nothing of the number of articles sourcing Japanese news that have been blatantly google-translated (or worse). I cannot count the number of supposedly-respectable newspapers mangling (fundamentally different) Shindo- and Richter- scales when reporting about the earthquake. When it comes to Fukushima, a good tell-away sign, is the utter mess between names of the plants (第一, 第二 etc.), names of the reactors and number of reactors involved (mistaking “explosion at reactor #3” for “explosion of a third reactor” is a pretty clear sign that somebody is having fun with Google Translate and taking wild guesses).

The bottom line: stay as far as you can from foreign breaking news reports. If you must, go to NHK World for English-speaking reports a little closer to the source (mention CNN to me and I’ll shoot you in the face). But you should also consider leaving your TV/internet alone and taking your mind to other things for a while. Being informed is good, but loops of recycled disaster footage and uninformed talking head cackling is not conducive to rational thinking and good decisions.

Now that I have bashed at will foreign media for their ill-informed news and baseless speculating, allow me to speculate baselessly for a bit:

As mentioned, nuclear-related incidents are about the least objectively reported-on pieces of news you can find. Practically everybody has an agenda and getting factual reports, let alone objective predictions, requires sifting through several layers of contradictory, mutually-cancelling, PR filters. Like anybody else, I have bias (see further down below for more general thoughts on the whole atom fission thing), but would still consider myself reasonably objective, in that 1) I tend to favour Science™ over Loud Panicky Screams, as a method to deal with issues 2) I am not on the payroll of any governmental or privately owned Energy company (which also means I have no professional authority on the matter whatsoever)…

This article, while wholly outdated on the news side of things (and very obviously biased toward premature optimism), has a pretty damn good description of the ins and outs of Mark I-type nuclear reactors and why even the most catastrophic scenario is nothing like the country-wide apocalypse the news like to sell you. Bottom-line is: regardless of the damage, you will probably be fine.

A few sorta-obvious facts that even semi-decent news sources seem to forget at times:

1. Reactors are not nuclear bombs. They can explode due to pressure or from a release of hydrogen (voluntary or not) igniting in contact with the air. Avoiding pressure buildup is the main priority of the authorities: which is why they occasionally chose to release light radioactive material into the air, rather than risk a critical pressure level. Hydrogen explosions are bad, but they aren’t very energetic: they cannot do major damages to the plants (and were probably somewhat expected in the first place).

2. The reactors are off and the main fission reaction has stopped a long time ago. The current problem is to cool the cores (which can take a long time) and contain all the nasty radioactive stuff it has produced (also best achieved by preventing the rods from melting). Pouring sea water and boric acid into the reactors likely went a long way toward that goal, while marking the point where the reactors were written off for good (may sound silly, but permanently crippling the capacity to sustain Tokyo’s power needs for the coming few years is not that much less important than preventing a meltdown, even in terms of human lives). All in all: time is on our side… As the longer we wait, the cooler it gets…

3. Assuming absolutely everything goes wrong and we are heading toward the most catastrophic scenario (something of a 30-70 odds at this point, but changing hourly), Fukushima is not Chernobyl. The multiple layers of containment will stop the bulk of the radiation and prevent a firework of heavy radioactive material into the atmosphere. Once the whole thing is encased in a few extra layers of concrete, we will be left with a large no-man’s-land around the plant. The main risk is to emergency workers and people close to the reactors: not Tokyo residents. There are quite a few steps ahead, before some hypothetical radioactive cloud is spotted 200km south, over Tokyo… And by then most of Honshu will have equal reasons to worry.

Don’t get me wrong: you won’t see me on the beach near Fukushima anytime soon. But let’s step back, take a deep breath and realise that Japan is not about to be engulfed in flames while Godzilla stomps upon the remains. Most of the real disaster is currently located in the northern part of Japan, where people have it rough now and need all the help they can get. Panicking everywhere else is not gonna help.

Update #1: some completely irrelevant thoughts on the budding civil nuclear debate.

Update #2: Embassy Updates on the Nuclear Crisis in Fukushima (short version: you are OK).

11 comments

  1. Thanks Dave! You really summed up my general thoughts nicely while giving it also way more insight than I could have (i.e. the translation errors and such) … I have stopped watching the news and just skim some article headlines when they come up …

  2. well-written rant! probably helps being a couple hundred (or thousand) miles away.

    your sentence
    “So please can we avoid the tearful airport arrivals of foreigners freshly repatriated from their minato-ku apartment, bawling on international news as if they had just survived World War 3.”
    made me smile. of course your post also explains why the arriving repatriates may actually feel like they just survived WW3. with all the news reports around it is not easy for anybody to assess the situation. signal versus noise…

    let’s hope for the best.

  3. @Peter: you’re welcome. And yes: taking a break from foreign news reports is probably a good thing.

    @Christian: you are entirely right: being a very safe distance from it all, helps. But between my consumption of all sorts of news (European, US, Japanese, Facebook, mails etc.), and the contingent of Tokyo refugees currently camping it out in my living room, I feel I get quite a good exposure to all aspects of the crisis: both the objective and subjective sides.
    Anyway, I think it is a rather natural human trait to be prone to panicking… and modern media certainly do not help with that. Problem is: in addition to being uncalled for, this sort of misinformed panic often ends up hurting more essential efforts directed at those who need it.

  4. Thanks for a great post. I’m here in Mishima, Shizuoka-ken. As 単身赴任 my partner and kids are in central Iwate- fine, but running short of supplies. Panicking down here in south and emptying the shops of food and buying up all the gas could cause even more problems for the poor people on that (formerly) beautiful Iwate and Miyagi coast. As it is, there isn’t enough fuel to properly distribute the food people need.

    I’ll admit I’ve been unable to stay away from British newspapers. Amazing how many of them have sent correspondents who don’t even speak a single word of Japanese.

    “Problem is: in addition to be uncalled for, this sort of misinformed panic often ends up hurting more essential efforts directed at those who need it.”

    You hit the nail on the head

  5. Thank you very much for this post, which showed me that there still are people out there who reflect about what they’re hearing and reading. In Germany I feel embarrassed by the stupidity of the people around me and scaremongering articles of the worst kind not only in the yellow press.

    I believe, those running around and shouting for pulling the plugs on the plants now should read this, alas I doubt they’d be able to get the gist of it. Needless to say that I’m appalled by those who use this tragedy for their egotistical need to sullen fake fears with the illusion of security.

    The main problem is, you can’t discuss with knowledge against emotion in this matter – and if you dare argue with idiots, they will pull you down to their level first, beating you by experience afterwards.

    In this spirit, 頑張って下さい!

  6. Hello my friend, THANK.YOU.!!

    This is exactly what I am trying to tell everybody back in Germany.
    I live in Tokyo and I was right there when the earthquacke occured.
    NO FUCKING THING HAPPENED IN TOKYO – maybe a couple of bikes in front of the supermarket fell over (well ok, besides of the 4 dead).

    It is incredible how especially German media makes such a huge story out of the nuclear “meltdown”. Yes, there are problems going on and its not a lauging matter. In fact I am pretty scared myself. But it is NOT as they describe it in the media and the Japanese gouvernment is doing its best!

    I`m getting tons of emails everyday predicting the total apocalypse and that I should run run run for it. OMG CALM DOWN!
    Instead send some rescue squads to help get the people out of their crushed houses!

  7. matt, Lars & Ali: thank YOU for confirming that I am not going completely crazy. Sometimes, when I see some of the discussions amongst foreigners, plus the ridiculous one-upmanship in scary headlines in US and Europe, I start wondering if I live in another reality…
    And then I remember that those thousands dead and half-million refugees in Tohoku are very real, need urgent help and have little to do with the current nuclear obsession.

    I wish I could say that when everything settles down, some of the worst fear-mongers(*) will be held accountable for their very damaging role in these events… but I know that the chances are close to zero (and so do they, which is why they don’t think twice about it): it’s just all too easy to use the pretense of “over-cautiousness” to let go of all facts and peddle rumours blindly.

    Anyway… Good luck everybody and let’s keep our thoughts for those that really need it, up there in Tohoku and Fukushima…

    (*) the French embassy, which actually propagated false rumours, Spiegel and its thoroughly misleading infographics that presented wild hypotheses as reality etc. etc

  8. It’s been exceedingly difficult to find accurate, primary sourced information throughout the disaster. I’ve managed to collect a good chunk of it together on my site while live blogging the updates, but even then we have to rely mostly on secondary information coming out of press conferences through the media. NHK Japan has been by far the best and most balanced media outlet so far, but even they have an agenda (they cannot easily criticise TEPCO’s stuff-ups because they receive funding through advertising). They are also partially government funded. Still, it beats even the most balanced foreign media by far. I generally rely on following informed people on Twitter and referring to primary sources wherever possible. Failing that, organisations like the IAEA.

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