By Helena S Davies
It is just over five years since the Fukushima Diiachi explosion, caused by the impact of the earthquake derived tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, on March 11th, 2011 and a question was posed to me with regards to reflecting on how the media responded to the disaster. After having a very quick search through a rather well known internet search engine it appears that: shock and horror! Accusations of the media being guilty of over- sensationalising stories are present! Front page, bad pun- headlines at the ready! Well, actually, I think not. I think I will refrain from allowing my jaw to proverbially plummet to the floor quite yet and instead roll my eyes and respond with: “Yes. And…?” And I know I am not alone in that response. Whether the media sometimes behaves in an ethical way or not, is not the point here. The point is that we all know that it happens and the nuclear industry knows that this happens. All. Too. Well.
Now arguably, this has been for a very good reason. However, being a nuclear environmental scientist, I have empathised with the nuclear sector’s frustrations at the media’s perceived scare- mongering. For example, in researching for this very post, I vented a not so silent scientist-vs-journalist frustration rant to my flatmate, following reading links with “radioactive wild boars” in the title1-2, which conjured up images of yellow-glowing hogs spreading nuclear contamination, but which actually focussed on reporting on the destruction being caused by the animals within the Fukushima exclusion zone (note my restraint in omitting the use of several exclamation points and “shocked face” emoji’s at the end of this anecdote). My empathy however, was stopped in its tracks after reading the report released by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), which outlined changes to the safe limits of radionuclide content in food, which was enforced in April 2012 as a direct result of the radionuclide release from Fukushima3-4. Safe drinking water limits for radioactive caesium changed from 200 to 10 Bq l-1, whilst milk and dairy products were reduced from 200 to 50 Bq kg-1 and general food stuffs (vegetables and grain for example) reduced from 500 to 100 Bq kg-1 4. Instead of offering any kind of reassurance, all that this information did for me was to raise the question: “well does that mean that residents of Japan may have been eating unsafe levels of radioactive caesium before Fukushima?” Anybody else now feeling a tad uneasy about this?
I prattled on in a previous article about whether better education leads to building trust, especially in terms of the nuclear sector and science in general5, and from the above example, I would say not. The on-going criticism of how the Japanese government has and is handling the Fukushima incident6-8 is only fuelling the fire further. A BBC News article released in March only this year highlighted the in-fighting between scientific opinion, Japanese government actions and the inconsistencies between levels of accepted background radiation doses, in relation to the Fukushima explosion6. Naturally, being a scientist myself, I understand that research advances do lead to changes in safety limits, something that happens within all industry sectors. The issue is that when the reasoning behind this is not made clear and expert opinions are divided, it casts doubt on the facts, therefore giving the media greater slack for sensationalist embellishment. Overall, reflecting on the media coverage of Fukushima? Frankly, nuclear industry, you seem to be making a fuel rod for your own back.