Categories: Crisis management / Energy issues / Fukushima

13 March 2011


Media suffers a Fukushima meltdown

Nobody can be anything but shocked by the devastating impact of the earthquake and Tsunami on Japan. The scenes were on a scale hardly envisaged by a Hollywood disaster movie. Yet that’s no excuse for the media’s seeming loss of nerve and perspective over the troubles at Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Clearly, the pictures of the reactor building’s side walls and ceiling exploding that we all saw live on TV were startling. But it was obviously not a nuclear explosion. As Malcolm Grimston, associate fellow at Chatham House in London, remarked:

“Thankfully, although the explosion was spectacular, it wasn’t devastating and it seems the force was not sufficient to breach the reactor’s metal shell.”

Of course, the authorities in Japan rightly evacuated around 170 000 people from a twenty kilometer radius from the plant. But that was a precautionary move, not one born out of panic. There was some mildly radioactive steam and or hydrogen that needed venting from the plant. It was wise to remove people from its vicinity while the gas dispersed harmlessly into the atmosphere.

To put all this in perspective, the authorities have rated the incident so far at 4 on the 0-7 international scale of severity. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was rated 7, with the official death toll being just under 50, though as many as 4,000 could die eventually as a consequence of that accident. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident was rated 5. Notably in that case nobody was killed or seriously injured, and no long term health consequences are expected.

Sure, the recent earthquake and Tsunami have pushed the safety defences at Fukushima to the limit. We don’t know yet whether the two troubled reactor cores at Fukushima “merely” suffered fuel damage, a partial meltdown or the near full meltdown that occurred at Three Mile Island. But we can say with some certainty that that lack of knowledge is not that important. It took years before we knew the full extent of the meltdown at Three Mile Island. That’s because it is not possible to poke one’s head, or even a camera, into the reactor core until it cools down and the radiation levels allow it.

There is something very credible and laudable about Japan’s safety-first nuclear culture at work in Fukushima. They have flooded their reactors with seawater – which effectively destroys them – to make 100% sure that they cool down harmlessly; the main threat being hydrogen and steam explosions caused by the reactor’s heat.

The picture emerging from Fukushima is “reassuring”. The onsite and offsite consequences – no deaths and just a few injuries and some dispersal of mildly radioactive gas – have been limited. That’s what a safety case and the regulatory authorities demand from a nuclear plant’s in-depth multi-layered defences.

It is my view, that the Japanese handling of this nuclear incident at Fukushima – whether they made mistakes or not – will validate the safety case for old nukes.

So there’s something very skewed, overblown even, about the media’s reporting on Japan’s earthquake and Tsunami disasters: we know there are tens of thousands of people dead, hundreds of thousands more homeless or stranded, yet everybody is talking excessively about a troubled nuclear plant that has not and most likely will not kill anybody.

However the media were playing up to stereotypes over Japan’s nuclear troubles. There’s a rich history associated with nuclear scaremongering, not least because the public has an appetite for horror stories. At Three Mile Island in 1979 the meltdown occurred at the outset of the shutdown. The media and politicians then spent weeks terrorizing the world as they speculated about the terrible impact of a meltdown that had been so undramatic that nobody noticed it had happened already with little consequence.

As I have reported extensively on this online review, while Chernobyl was an horrific disaster, it was no where near as bad as the doom-mongers claimed – see here here and here.

So the western nuclear industry now has a major PR challenge on its hands. The challenge will be to convince the world that core meltdowns do happen and that the evidence shows that they don’t matter much (Chernobyl being a unique case). That calls for some straight and upfront risk management communication, one that can show that new nukes are even more reassuringly safe than old ones.

22 responses to “Media suffers a Fukushima meltdown”

  1. Jerry Hollingsworth says:

    An excellent article and as one with over 30 years nuclear experience – in all facets of it – I applaud and appreciate your comments!

  2. isthmus says:

    What a crap, denying or fading out major facts. Media are not just writing, they are talking to a bunch of experts. Which nuke lobby do you belong to?

  3. ;James says:

    A lucid argument by Isthmus. No noun after the delightful adjective ‘crap’; deference to the capitalist media and its ‘experts’, and finally a unique, selfless and penetrating analysis: ‘Which nuke lobby do you belong to?’. More please!

  4. Gordon MacKay says:

    Oh how I would love to buy you a ticket so you could report live from the site of these failing reactors. Shame on you. Do you have no conscience? It is clear to the majority that the dissimulation and disingenuous manouverings of your kind are undergoing your own meltdown in credibility. You can talk in measured tones and adopt a condescending tone but your ’emporor’s clothes’ are as insubstantial and vacuous as your assurances.
    Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin!

  5. Paul says:

    People like Seaman should really be shamed into volunteering as “liquidators”, Chernobyl style. Either it’s as harmless as they say and their future lives will prove abundantly. Or we will be rid of their techno-religious mania for good. Either way, our species will benefit, and they will personally benefit from being forced, the first time in their careers, to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for their drawing board flights of fancy.

    Energy released in the Sendai earthquake: about 2*10E18 Joule. Seaman really believes it is humanly possible to build something (apart from fission-fusion bombs) that even comes within visual range of that, or withstanding that.

    Do give the nuke lobby and nuke apologists a Nobel for falsifying the Law of Conservation of Energy and the Law of Conservations of Momentum. Then force them into a plane to Fukushima.
    Another such “biologically human” critter is found here:
    His bottom line: “Its all over now, only harm done is to TEPCO”. The 200.000 IDPs which can’t return home anytime soon, some of them probably never, will be SO relieved to hear this.

    Some facts? “Meltdown” has started in I-1 and I-3 for good; the radionuclide profile is a pretty good indicator for partical core uncovery, and as soon as the core is uncovered, it will start to heat up, eventually to soften, deform and possibly melt. I-2, II-1, II-2 and II-4 are on the brink, any major disruption will start at least partial core melt. Also problems in Onagawa in at least one reactor. No threat of a Chernobyl-style graphite fire, but explosive decompression when winds are anything but westerly will have ugly results; if the winds happen to be northeasterly for some hours, it will be WORSE than Chernobyl by sheer number of people and economic infrastructure affected.

    And anyone quoting the “official” death toll of Chernobyl will be glad to hear zat ze So-called Great Ukraine Famine of 1920 is also just invenshon of dirty capitalist imperialists. There is nothing to see, no dead bodies, move along Comrade. The simple fact is: if Ukraine does not spend 5% of its annual budget on the Dome, people will start dying again form Chernobyl.

    Also: it is obvious to any person with clear grasp of reality and physics that the statement “meltdowns do not exist formally, it’s core damage and core destruction” is baseless propaganda. The process is one and the same. “Core damage” = beginning meltdown, “core destruction” = complete meltdown. A reactor core does not melt away within a wink of an eye; it softens, deforms and FINALLY melts into liquid. And this process starts unevenly, particularly after a gravitational upset has shaken up the thing a bit. While most of the cores must have stayed fairly solid til now, the I-1 core must have at least in its upper parts become fairly soft.

    People who spout the “it’s not meltdown, it’s core damage” crap are about as braindead as those who say WTC1/2 couldn’t collapse because “the fire was not hot enough to melt steel”. Only difference, you can make a living from being a nucler denialist, not from a WTC “truther”; the insult to intellect is the same in both cases.

    And the final fact that buries it all: Japanese definition of nuclear emergency. Meaning that the cooling systems, all of them, are not working as designed.

    We have this in 7 reactors now. Meaning that in a wink of an eye, the active defences of 7 reactors, several of them fairly modern, could be breached and in some cases shattered without hope of rebuilding soon enough. No matter that the passive defences do hold; the reactors will be down for a long time, and there will be need to dump a large amount of dangerously irradiated material.

    Because what you, sir, care very much not to say: basic physics demands that the energy released in the beginning-meltdown-that-does-not-exist is still mostly inside the containment.

    To think that one can design such plants to be tsunami-safe is lunacy. Like I said: force them to go Liquidator. The pro-nuke apologists need a bitter medicine to come out of their fairy-fantasy land. They’re science’s equivalent of Al Qaida: techno-religious fanatics who don’t mind if people die for their flights of hubris.

    May I thus repeat my request, sir, to spare us any more of your pseudo-informed pseudo-intelligent and utterly physics-violating PR blather, and pack up and leave for Fukushima ASAP? This is now the right place to be for your ilk.

    But you better stay safe at home, promote stuff, and let others do the dirty work, neh?

  6. […] more are missing. I can’t even begin to imagine what this destruction is to their lives. While media is focusing on the nuclear meltdown, I will focus on the people that try to save lives, the survivors and Japan […]

  7. doom-monger says:

    The best thing that western nuclear industies can do it’s DISAPPEAR. “…core meltdowns do happen and that the evidence shows that they don’t matter much” if core meltdowns doesnt matter, what does matter for you? Benefitts? Such a mindless person shouldnt write at all.

  8. bp6 says:

    the risks are way too high…we cannot control nucelar power safely
    we should rely on other energy sources, water wind sun and so on….
    Statistics do not matter, things will always fuck up and then the risks are so extremely high that it is not worth the risk. Nuclear power is the result of wanting cheap energy, and not caring for the future.
    the writer does not understand..period.

  9. Peter Walker says:

    Well at least it means that we get poor and manipulative reporting fromJapan rather than the middle East.

    OFCOM MUST require broadcasters to identffy what footage is live and any other footage must be timelined similarly radio must get conributors from outside the region to identify that they are speculating rather than bandying figures about.

    I can live with the Murdoch press or the politics of the Express, Mirror or Mail at least we know what their line will be but treating Tweets and blogs as the truth is high farce and dangerous.

  10. Edward says:

    Some phrases can come back to haunt people, especially the when ‘Fail Safe’ systems fail.

    The Japan nuclear authorities, whether correct or not, have a reputation of cover up, so when they say they have a minor problem, everyone else infers it to be major.

    I support nuclear energy as I think that in general it is more reliable and can be cheaper than solar, wind and wave power (when you bring in the extra costs that they bring such as expanding the grid, needing backup generators and short term energy stores). However I am sure there are more suitable designs of reactor for earthquake zones that naturally stop getting hot when they run out of water.

    Unfortunately I am sure this will generate a major rethink on nuclear across the world, as politicians will run scared.

  11. tim says:

    Wow Paul, think some posters seem to be having their own little meltdowns on here. While I can’t profess to be the slightest tech expert on nuclear, it’s clear the media are doing their usual. Going for the fear factor story with lots of experts dug up from their dusty corners to give their opinions on what may happen, rather than reporting the facts and seeking the real stories. – nice post, keep them coming.

  12. Donna says:

    What a load of crap. And all for the all mighty buck.

  13. […] Media suffers a Fukushima meltdown – PR perspective from Paul Seaman’s online blog […]

  14. Nesjo says:

    The more inflammatory comments here simply underline that the average person doesn’t have the faintest idea of what nuclear power really is all about – including myself. We all know it’s dangerous if it goes wrong, and of course we’ve seen the scary pictures from Japan, but we couldn’t tell you how any more.

    So my thanks to Paul, who at least has had the balls to share his considerable knowledge on this topic.

  15. minion says:

    i was going to comment on this articles fact twisting mindless nuclear support, but you guys did that very well already.

    its awe inspiring to me seeing how these nuclear minions have spread all over the internet downplaying this catastrophe.

  16. Mark says:

    Another article overly downplaying the risks! This type of article started springing up when people felt threatened by the call to action on global warming. Dr Joseph Oehmen, do you want to comment here to give your informed opinion? Barry Brook? People in Japan would be wise to “hope for the best, plan for the worst” at this stage I believe. The person who wrote this article is willing to compromise the safety of others to promote their own interests. Good at PR, but not so strong on morality.

  17. Edward says:

    No doubt that any pro nuclear article will be treated with suspicion, but this is worth reading, for a semi technical layman’s explanation of what’s happening:

  18. Natasha says:

    A useful post. The Japanese have had a lot to contend with in managing the terrifying earthquake and Tsunami. But what’s happened in the media is an information vacuum, at a time when people globally are looking for more insight – not spin – into the operating conditions at the nuclear plant.

    What the Fukushima nuclear plant’s construction means for safety, what risks are presented by overheating and what previous experience shows worldwide from hydrogen explosions at nuclear plants.

    I thought Malcolm Grimston from RIIA did an excellent job in explaining these matters with insight, expertise and thoughtfulness in what is usually quite highly charged topic. No-one else was there to fill the gap from other international institutions and the media were right to bring him on air.

    A useful addition to the debate.

  19. James says:

    On one hand I agree what the author has to say and on the other I tend to agree with some of the counter arguments as posted.

    In the end – it’s far too early for anyone to pretend to know what will be the final outcome of this will be: certainly too early for PR Types and Media Moguls to spin the nuclear hot potato of public opinion in favor of themselves.

    Yes a great many big words that sound catchy like ‘meltdown’ and ‘radiation’ have been overused in the context of hyping the headlines – but in this case I think the general public as a whole can live with this even if it means absorbing too much of it in too short of time, and at time hard to swallow. At least with these they are unlikely to kill you today or tomorrow – if not leave you a little bit more polluted.

    I for one don’t care about the lobby this or the lobby that – I care that they find a solution to put an end to this tragedy as safely and quickly as possible. Save the who’s right / wrong debate until such a time that it may actually have relevance.

  20. Emily LincOBrien says:

    Important to remember that this article is written by a PR expert – not a nuclear expert as suggested in one comment – who has made his living out of putting positive spin on nuclear industry & incidents including Chernobyl (e.g. as media relations manager at the British Nuclear Forum)

  21. bob says:

    go buy a ticket and stand at the plant gates for you next piece, what measured baloney.! oh everything is fine really!