Japan: the nuclear backlash | FT Alphaville

Japan: the nuclear backlash

There is a growing backlash in Japan about what many Japanese — and also expats, judging by sentiments voiced in conversations we’ve had in Tokyo — see as sensational or even hysterical reporting in the wake of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Foremost are complaints about (mainly foreign) media coverage of Japan’s efforts to contain radioactive leakages from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, with some more extreme reports suggesting a nuclear holocaust is imminent.

Add to that the headlines that have accompanied confirmation of low-level, radioactive contamination of some vegetables, milk and even water supplies.

This post from InformationWeek for example has an MIT research scientist warning on the “overblown” nature of reporting on Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Some of the worst offenders appear in an article headlined: “Foreign media take flak for fanning fears” in the English-language paper the Japan Times on Monday.

But the clear prizewinner so far for sloppy, sensationalist “reporting” — if you can call it that — on Japan’s nuclear problems goes to Fox News, which mistook a Tokyo live music venue called Shibuya Eggman, which had the phrase “nuclear reactor” in a tribute to earthquake and tsunami vicitms on its website, for a nuclear plant.

Hence, Eggman appeared on a map shown by Fox News as a nuclear power plant — err, yes, in the middle of Tokyo’s busiest shopping district, Shibuya — with a report saying authorities had warned that another severe quake or an eruption at Mount Fuji could spark a meltdown at the “Shibuya Eggman nuclear reactor”.

FoxNews screen grab

The Eggman nuclear reactor

Indeed, wrote author and commentator Jake Adelstein on his blog:

“No wonder we haven’t had any black-outs in Tokyo yet. We owe it all to those secretly hard-working nuclear power plant employees at Shibuya Eggman” … “Just when you feel like there’s no hope left in the world, and the constant barrage of negative news about the earthquake in Japan and the looming radioactive death storm is getting you down, at least we can count on FOX News to lift our spirits.”

In the UK, meanwhile, as the Japan Times noted, the British tabloids went for big, bold headlines when it was revealed that the Fukushima plant was leaking radiation, with the high-circulation The Sun screaming in a headline: “Get out of Tokyo Now!”.

The strongest indictment yet of sensationalist coverage of Japan comes in the form of a “Journalistic Hall of Shame” set up by JPquake, a website led by journalists focusing on the relief effort and coverage of the quake and tsunami-related disaster.

The site compiles reports from foreign television, radio and newspaper companies since the March 11 quake set off the nuclear crisis. The purpose of the website, its creators say, is to inspire reporting that is factually accurate and less sensationalist.

Meanwhile, we can usually rely on investment banks for a balanced view or at least one largely stripped of emotion. This update on the situation at the Fukushima power plant – and of associated issues including the radioactive contemination scare – comes on Tuesday in a note from Masamichi Adachi, an economist at JPMorgan in Tokyo:

The situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant has improved over the long weekend, but it is still fluid. Encouragingly, the external power supply to the plant is now connected (or close to), which means that the cooling system for the reactors and the storage pools of the fuel rods will be able to function again (this should go a long way towards stabilising the situation).

However, the pumps and other cooling equipment will need to be repaired/replaced even if the power supply is connected. It is reported that a few more days will be necessary to complete that work. TEPCO, (the plant operator), is also trying to re-activate the central control room on the site, which is currently closed due to the lack of power and high level of radiation.

The bad news was that smoke was observed coming from No.2 and 3 reactors yesterday (Monday) which delayed the field operations, including the work to connect the power as well as pouring water into the storage pool of the fuel rods besides reactors No.3 and 4.

While the cause is still unknown, the smoke has dissipated since this morning and the planned operations are now ongoing. The radiation levels at both Kitaibaraki (80km from the plant) and in Tokyo have risen since yesterday, although the levels are still sufficiently low as to be considered safe. However, the rise in radiation does suggest that the situation at the plant has not improved much, which is consistent with what we are hearing from the plant.

In terms of negative impact from the nuclear plant accidents, Adachi notes that the latest concern is radiation contamination of agricultural products (mainly spinach and milk) in the neighboring prefectures, which he reckons will impact the local economy.

The FT has more on the broader concerns about contamination here and here.

And here’s an update on the situation at the plant.

Related links:
Japan quake: in-depth – FT.com
WHO says Japan food contamination serious – FT
Japan – to buy or not to buy? – FT Alphaville
Special report: Japan’s stricken nuclear plant – Reuters