Note: the author of this article, Graham Leonard, is an American historian currently residing in Osaka, Japan. He is an expert on the Lucky Dragon incident.
Although not long remembered in the United States, the Lucky Dragon incident sparked the creation of the Japanese national anti-nuclear movement. One of the key aspects of the crisis was massive damage to the Japanese fishing industry as panic spread like wildfire among the public over possibile radioactive contamination of the oceans by American atomic tests. Although some of their fears had legitimate basis, most of them were ultimately found to be groudless.
One major factor in the panic was widespread ignorance of radiation biology not just on the part of the general public, but within the scientific community as well. Things have obviously improved greatly on that front in the last 60 years. But as I have watched the news and taken in reports on the current crisis over the past week, I have been struck by how many similarities exist between the responses in both cases, especially on the part of the media.
Then and now the media has served to make things worse in their rush to provide information. Even when not being intentionally sensationalistic, they rarely provide truly informative coverage. The conjectures of scientists and officials with no direct knowledge of what's happening are passed on verbatim with little comment. Statements about radiation are given without specifics or context. Radiation levels have increased in Tokyo? As measured by who, where, when, and how? What are the absolute readings and how do they compare with international safety standards and background readings elsewhere in the world?
This information doesn't seem to make the grade. It was already evident that the mainstream media has given up any pretense of factchecking when they report on political statements; it's sad to see that the same thing applies to scientific reporting.
I've never seen such massive coverage provide so little understanding. Comments from friends and family here and in America have revealed deep confusion over whether risk exists and if so, what can be done. No credible report that I've seen shows the Fukushima plants posing a significant threat to those in Tokyo, let alone those further West. Yet many people here in Osaka are scared and some I know are evacuating to their home countries. There's a constant underlying tension here, made all the more frustrating by its needlessness.
Another concern about the media coverage is that the emphasis on the nuclear threat is likely doing active harm by pushing news about the other, less lurid elements of the disaster to the background.
Regardless of how you feel about nuclear energy in general, the plausible threat posed by these reactors, even in a worst-case scenario, pales in comparison to the humanitarian crisis currently facing those in northern Japan. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and there is a severe shortage of food, water, blankets, and shelter. With the recent cold spell, the danger posed by these shortages has become even worse.
Of course, this is not an either-or situation; it is possible to be concerned about all aspects of this disaster. But I fear that many don't look beyond the nuclear headlines. I've seen many comments on-line questioning whether Japan, as an industrialized nation, really needs donations from the West. I can't help but feel that if the nuclear crisis wasn't taking up the bulk of the coverage that there would be less of such doubts.