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Anorak | How Did The Disaster In Japan Become All About Us?

How Did The Disaster In Japan Become All About Us?

by | 21st, March 2011

IT is difficult to get one’s head around just how immense the destruction caused by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan has been. But that is no excuse for how quickly international observers shifted their focus from the devastation and suffering on the ground to self-obsessive panicking about what the consequences might be for the rest of the world.

After the magnitude-9 earthquake struck off the north-east coast of Japan on 11 March, pushing the island of Honshu 2.4 metres to the east and triggering a 23meter-high tsunami that flooded at least 400 square kilometres of land, the destruction is colossal. The latest figures show that the death toll is likely to top 18,000. Thousands more have been injured and nearly half a million are homeless. In large areas of Japan, people are still contending with a lack of electricity, water and transportation. The World Bank estimates that it could take Japan five years to overcome the catastrophe, at a cost of between £75billion and £145billion.

Yet reporting of the tragedy has shown that concerns about the earthquake’s consequences over there very quickly became submerged by fears of what it all means for us, over here.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant has been the main focus of international news reporting on the disaster. Indeed, it did not take long for observers to start fantasising about an impending nuclear apocalypse and speculating about what kind of poisonous particles may be spreading to our shores and contaminating our air.

READ: Japan’s Media Apocalypse:

Governments around the world, including the US, have issued recommendations to its citizens to leave Japan in order to avoid exposure to radiation. Newspaper headlines in countries as far away as Sweden have speculated about how long it will take for radioactive particles to reach them, though, as the texts underneath the dramatic headlines tend to point out, there will be no health risks involved beyond the local area. This combination of panic-inducing headlines and quotes from experts urging calm has only added to the confusion and the sense that something dangerous is going on, that this is a catastrophe not just for Japan, but for the world.

Many have taken on the better-safe-than-sorry-message that has dominated analyses of the situation at Japan’s power plants. In China, panicked shoppers have been stockpiling iodized salt potassium and in several countries, including Britain, iodine pills have been flying off the shelves. In the US, iodide supplies have reportedly sold out. Iodide supplements are used against radiation sickness, an extremely rare affliction that is only triggered upon exposure to extremely strong doses of radiation. Not even the doses presently found by the Fukushima plant, 5,000 miles away from the US, are strong enough to cause radiation sickness.

The situation at Japan’s power plants should, of course, be taken seriously. Eleven nuclear power generation plants were forced to shut down because of the earthquake and tsunami. There have been reports of set-backs in efforts to cool down burning spent fuel rods and an increase in radioactive material in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant, as well as traces of radiation in water and vegetables. The situation requires close monitoring and scrutiny. But, thankfully, the situation has not gone out of control. The reactors at the Fukushima plant went into automatic shutdown despite having been exposed to an earthquake several times stronger than they were designed to cope with.

The radioactive emissions in Japan have been small, posing some danger to people in the vicinity of the plant, but not beyond. The doses, by several accounts, are comparable to that of an x-ray. Indeed, the many tourists and expats who have been called home by their embassies would have been exposed to a far bigger dose of radiation on their flight home than on the ground in Japan. As Glenn Braunstein, director of the Thyroid Cancer Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, pointed out, “The amount of radiation you get going from LA to New York on an airplane is probably greater than anything anyone will ever get from Japan”.

In other words, nuclear holocaust is still just the stuff of blockbusters. But this hasn’t stopped the media and anti-nuclear activists from obsessing about “the Fukushima crisis”, “nuclear meltdown”, a “second Chernobyl”, or a “Three Mile Island redux”. In the press, these warnings have been accompanied, not just by dramatic images of actual explosions at the Fukushima power plant and helicopters dumping water over the site to cool down the overheating reactors, but also with pictures of a natural gas plant explosion and a burning oil refinery.

For outsiders, all this brings the crisis closer to home, refocusing our attention on how the tragedy in Japan will affect us. Meanwhile, in the international press and in politicians’ emergency meetings, the all-too real and pressing human suffering felt by thousands has taken second place. Instead, the question occupying many minds has been “what is to come?”, as if the 11 March havoc was not horrifying enough. The real images of entire towns wiped out, mountains of rubble and dead bodies have been rendered less frightening than the fantasy prospect of global nuclear contamination.

This blend of nuclear doommongering and narcissism makes things worse for people on the ground in Japan. It has detracted attention from those who are genuinely suffering and has put additional strain on the Japanese economy, as international companies pull their staff out of the country and tourists are dissuaded from visiting. Food imports from Japan have been halted and in China a Japanese cargo plane was turned away.

For some, of course, all this presents a great political opportunity. Green groups have shamelessly exploited the disaster to declare that this is “the death of the nuclear renaissance” and to claim that the catastrophe in Japan is the logical consequence of the world not paying heed to the anti-nuclear lobby. Greenpeace has said the events in Japan justify putting an end to “the nuclear age” and in London, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament held a vigil for “the victims of the nuclear accident in Japan“, forgetting that the thousands of deaths over the past days were caused by the earthquake and tsunami, not by “nuclear meltdown”.

In the US, the disaster has also brought old rockers and crusties out of the woodworks to reflect on how the situation in Japan makes them feel. As one veteran campaigner said, “This is a terrible time for those of us who’ve been fighting nukes all these years.” And the musician Graham Nash, who with the group Crosby, Stills and Nash took part in the 1979 No Nukes concerts, told the New York Times: “I look at Japan and think this could very possibly be us”.

But the disaster in Japan is not about us. Instead of all this scaremongering, alarmism and political opportunism, the focus ought to be on the needs of people affected on the ground, on containing any potential risks and on drawing lessons from these events in order to build even sturdier infrastructure, power plants and defences against natural forces in the future.



Posted: 21st, March 2011 | In: Key Posts Comment (1) | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink