David McNeill: Who's telling the truth on the Fukushima meltdown?
A string of autopsies -- political, regulatory and technological -- loom over the corpse of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The media, however, has already begun its self-examination and it’s not a pretty picture.
Newsweek Japan is one of many publications that have criticized “sensationalist” foreign reporters, who “failed to accomplish their mission” during the disaster.
Newsweek says some journalists ran away and many of those who stayed massively overreacted to the threat from the crippled reactors.
Hyperventilating foreign hacks were an easy, and sometimes deserving, target. Many observers recall CNN’s Jonathan Mann’s purple-veined report that radiation levels had increased to “10 million times” safe levels near the Fukushima plant, then ignoring a correction by operator TEPCO that knocked several zeroes off that estimate.
But although Japanese newspapers and TV reporters mostly kept their heads, they also concealed or delayed releasing information about what was going on inside the Fukushima plant.
One of the more striking aspects of the local media coverage of Fukushima was the missing word -- “meltdown.” It seemed reasonable to speculate, from March 11-15, that this is precisely what happened. One reason was the repeated news of cesium dispersed in the atmosphere on March 12.
Does media responsibility include outright deception?
Haruki Madarame, the Chair of the Nuclear Safety Commission now says he concluded very early on that meltdown had happened, and informed the government. Former Washington TBS Bureau Chief Toyohiro Akiyama, who has a farm in Fukushima, made a similar assessment and fled in his car to Gunma.
“There was a blackout in the media of the word,” he says in an interview this month with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club magazine, “No.1 Shimbun.” In April the head of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, Takashi Sawada, also said that fuel rods in reactors 1 and 3 had melted. Yet, it took over two months for newspapers and TV here to begin using the word. Why?
Japan’s press club system means the big newspapers and TV companies channel and amplify information directly from the government, TEPCO and The Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency. That meant they were admirably disciplined, descriptive, somber and focused on the facts.
They were also discouraged from speculating on what might be going on inside the stricken plant, although many reporters must have privately concluded the worst.
Some will argue that Japanese reporters had a heavy responsibility to avoid creating panic in the world’s most populated metropolis. Twenty-eight million people rushing for the highways, airports and train stations might have caused more deaths than radiation.
But does this responsibility mean simply not exaggerating, or does it also include concealing or delaying information or even outright deception?
As the Nuclear Safety Agency warned on March 12 that metal containers of uranium fuel inside Reactor 1 had probably started melting, University of Tokyo Professor Naoto Sekimura repeatedly popped up on TV to wave away our concerns.
“Only a small part of the fuel may have melted and leaked outside,” he said. Residents near the power station should “stay calm,” because “most of the fuel remains inside the reactor, which has stopped operating and is being cooled.”
How could Professor Sekimura have possibly known what he was saying, and shouldn’t that broadcaster have balanced his (clearly wrong) assessment with an opposite view. Or was that risking panic?
Readers will have to ask themselves how they feel about being kept in the dark “for their own good.”
Assume the worst
Japanese freelancer Takashi Uesugi recently suggested that the media could have behaved differently. “The correct way to report about the events at the nuclear power plant is to assume the worst case and write about it, then to also add what the current situation is in relation to that,” he said.
“Newspapers and television shouldn’t say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s safe. You don’t need to run away,’ like Japan’s have.”
We might also cite the example of MOX fuel and plutonium, a substance so toxic “that a teaspoon-sized cube of it would suffice to kill 10 million people,” in Reactor 3 at Fukushima.
Newspaper and TV reports in Japan essentially banished the words from their reports. MOX is also used in the Hamaoka nuclear plant, which, until Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered it shut last month was largely unknown to ordinary Japanese citizens.
Japanese magazines, however, have been the most critical, unrestrained and informed publications in the world since March. “Shukan Shincho” calls the TEPCO management ‘war criminals’. “Shukan Gendai” dubbed professor Sekimura and pro-nuclear scientists “tonchinkan” -- roughly, “blundering.”
Pants on fire
Haruki Madarame is now widely called “Detarame” Haruki, meaning he’s a liar or a bullshitter. But shouldn’t newspapers and TV news, the public’s watchdog, be timely and up to date?
For all its faults, it was foreign journalism that often bared its teeth first. “The Washington Post” first criticized the “vanishing act” of TEPCO boss Masataka Shimizu, on March 29.
It was the “New York Times” that consistently pursued TEPCO for its disgusting treatment of workers inside the Fukushima plant. When the Big Media corps pulled out of Minami-soma and other towns in Fukushima, Chinese, Korean and European journalists were back first to talk to the citizens left behind.
Airbrushed media coverage is hardly an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. Look behind the industry here and you’ll find a very familiar tale of advertising clout and industry-media ties.
Japan’s power-supply industry, collectively, is Japan’s biggest advertiser, spending ¥88 billion (US$1 billion) a year, according to the Nikkei Advertising Research Institute.
TEPCO’s ¥24.4 billion alone is roughly half what a global firm as large as Toyota spends in a year. Finding out what that money buys is the job of all journalists, regardless of where they come from.