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The Great East Japan Earthquake

The Nuclear Power Plant Accident and the Media:
Did They Overcome the Imperial General Headquarters' Announcement?

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

On May 1st-some 50 days after the Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster-we visited Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture, which was severely affected by tsunamis, to conduct surveys and collect information on the earthquake disaster and the media.

While we did not find any damage in the appearance of the area around town hall or a train station on a small hill, on going into a lowland area near the sea, we saw destroyed houses and heaps of debris extending all around. Though roads were only cleaned off for automobiles, most of the debris was left untouched. When it rained, the rotten smell of dead fish hung in the air.

The urban area of Kesennuma City turned into heaps of debris by tsunamis = photograph taken by Shiro Segawa on May 1, 2011

Radio and newspapers were useful to tsunami victims

As a preliminary survey about the media, we called on two shelters and interviewed 23 victims in total. The main question to them was which form of media-newspapers, TV, the Internet (PC or cellular phones), or radio-they used a frequently right after the earthquake, one to two weeks after it, and one month after it, respectively.

On the whole, the most common answer was radio immediately after the earthquake (car radios or battery-operated radios) and newspapers after one week since the earthquake. Cellular phones were used for confirming the safety of family members when the earthquake hit, but they became unavailable due to power outage. The same applies to computers and TVs. Shelters receive delivery of a certain number of national and regional newspapers every day. A shelter with 600 disaster victims had only two TV sets.

It is generally thought that Twitter and other social media have played an active role in responding to this earthquake disaster. This only seems to be the case, however, in areas where the Internet was available. Our survey revealed that it was hard to use social media and the Internet because of power outage in disaster areas that sustained heavy damage.

It should also be noted that this result would be due in part to the fact that the majority of people in the shelters we visited were middle-aged or elderly and unfamiliar with social media. In any case, it was print media such as notices posted at the shelters and newspapers that the disaster victims in the shelters relied on most for information 50 days after the earthquake. Among newspapers, they relied on information shown in regional newspapers in particular.

We also focused on local media in Kesennuma. Among others, we visited and conducted an interview survey with 3 media dealing with information on the local community: Sanriku Shimpo, a local newspaper based in Kesennuma; Fureai Kosaten, a community paper published by Fujita Sales Agent of a prefecture-level newspaper Kahoku Shimpo; and Kesennuma Saigai FM, a local community FM broadcast launched in response to this disaster. Though I will report the results of this interview another time (on J-School Web Magazine Spork!, etc.), the attitude of the local media being together with afflicted people was outstanding in terms of delivering information that disaster victims want.

Discontent about credibility of the nuclear reports

Now, let us discuss our main theme, media reports on the nuclear power plant accident.

Great tsunamis generated by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake caused an accident where all the power supply units of four reactors ceased to function at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant owned by The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and a large amount of radioactive ingredients were emitted from those four reactors that were no longer cooled. Though the reactors are not in a critical state because they were shut down automatically, the emission of radioactive ingredients resulted from hydrogen explosions inside the reactor buildings, which were triggered by the reactor cores that melted due to the heat generated from the natural decay of nuclear fuels.

One international standard for representing the severity of nuclear power plant accidents is the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). As an intermediate evaluation of this accident, the supervisory authority - Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) - expressed their opinion of "about Level 4" on March 12th, when a hydrogen explosion occurred at Unit 1. Later, they declared Level 5 on March 18th, which is the same as that for the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and raised it to Level 7 on April 12th, which is equivalent to that for the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986. The Fukushima accident was evaluated as Level 7 because Levels 5 and above are determined based on the quantity of radioactive ingredients released.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has emitted several hundreds of thousands of terabecquerels (iodine equivalent), which meets the criteria of Level 7. The Chernobyl accident emitted about 5.2 million terabecquerels. Emissions from the Fukushima accident are much lower than that, i.e. about a tenth of that level. It can be said that these two accidents are different in nature: The Chernobyl reactor caused a nuclear blast to emit radioactive materials in a single burst, while the Fukushima nuclear drew hydrogen explosions-and not a nuclear blast-to break part of the reactor buildings and emit radioactive materials. Nevertheless, the latter is still the second severest accident in history of nuclear power.

During our visit to Kesennuma, disaster victims seldom expressed their interest in the nuclear accident. The fact that tsunamis swallowed and swept away their entire daily life is too heavy on its own. Recently, however, many people all over the country have been much more interested in the developments surrounding the nuclear accident and impacts of radiation than in the tsunamis. National newspapers and the national public broadcasting network NHK have also concentrated on reports about the nuclear accident as well as damage from tsunamis.

How about responses from citizens (readers and audience)?

Though I cannot describe anything objectively as I have not conducted studies on the matter, as far as I have heard from my family members, students, faculty members and employees at universities, people involved in the media, and others around me, many of them expressed strong dissatisfaction, saying "the government and TEPCO have not disclosed the truth," or "the newspapers and TV are only reporting the announcements of the government and TEPCO verbatim." Some were also of the opinion that "I don't understand how the nuclear accident will develop even if I read articles," and others posed the question: "the media always says 'the radioactive materials don't affect us immediately,' but it means they will affect us some time in the future, doesn't it?" These are suspicions that the government and TEPCO are concealing information, and the media are similarly emphasizing safety and suppressing reports, so that citizens are not worried. The strongest stress and discontent about information were especially evident when radioactive ingredients over preliminary standards were found in vegetables and tap water one after another.

A checkpoint in Minamisoma City, 20 km away from the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant = photograph by Shiro Segawa on May 4, 2011

Lots of announcement reports and suppression by the domestic media

Roughly summarizing reports of national newspapers and NHK, we can describe them as having been preoccupied with so-called announcement reports primarily based on announcement from the government (the Cabinet and NISA) and TEPCO. I acknowledge, of course, the counterargument that these media outlets must deal with announcements simply because they are also news, and these media outlets are also writing articles to make requests to or criticize the government and TEPCO.

The media have generally covered announcements about daily development very frequently, however, and they have reported events such as "the temperature inside the reactor increased/decreased" and "radioactive ingredients over the standard were detected from XXX, but they don't pose imminent health risks" as important news every day. What citizens receive, unfortunately, is the content of announcements from the government and TEPCO.

Dwelling on detailed reports of new events emerging daily has led to negligence in delivering the big picture of the nuclear accident.

Of course, citizens want to know daily developments. A more critical issue that they demand, however, is the big picture of the accident. This conclusion is based on the following questions and awareness of issues from the fundamental perspective in the form of In the First Place:

"In the first place, what is the worst-case scenario of this nuclear accident? In this case, how many radioactive materials would be released? What is its possibility? What would happen in time to come?"

"In the first place, what would be the annual accumulated amount of radiation we might be exposed to by this nuclear accident? Would it have an impact on our health?"

"In the first place, what is the difference from the amount of radioactive ingredients that fell from atmospheric nuclear testing by the United States, the Soviet Union and other countries in the 1950s and 1960s?"

"In the first place, how many vegetables or tap water from which radioactive ingredients were detected can we take in before our health is impacted?"

"In the first place, what is the amount of radiation from which we should evacuate?"

"In the first place, what impact does a slight amount of radiation make on our health?"

Knowing the big picture, citizens can comprehend how dangerous the environment surrounding them is and more easily consider the rational actions that they should take.

Piling up fragmented reports would not build up such a big picture. When it comes to media reports about the current incident, it would have been desirable if newspapers had had any ideas at the early stages, such as creating a lead story with a large headline like "What would be the worst-case scenario and its possibility?" by making the most of interviews with experts and the expertise of their science reporters. If you understood the worst-case scenario, you would be able to work out how to prevent it more easily. If the government is unwilling to announce a fact, the media should discover it by themselves. The media would need to cover the situation every time it changes with concerns about "what is the worst-case scenario now?" in mind. It may be categorized as investigative journalism in that such coverage and reports are based on their own awareness of issues.

Actually, there were some articles getting to the core of the worst-case scenario, but their headline did not exactly represent its content, probably because the newspaper might have purposefully suppressed the explicit appearance of the worst-case scenario to avoid causing anxiety among readers. Some other articles describing the worst-case scenario had insufficient content. It would have been better if they had been written with clear consciousness about whether the worst-case development was core melt or recriticality, i.e., sequential nuclear fissions.

Incidentally, the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (Institut de radioprotection et de s短ret辿 nucl辿aire, IRSN) simulated radioactive contamination around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant assuming "a catastrophic incident where 100% of radioactive products are released from core melt" as the worst-case scenario. On their website, IRSN presents the result that it is not necessary, even in this case, to take iodine preparation for preventing thyroid cancer in areas 30 km or further from the nuclear plant.

The term core melt has been suppressed from being used. The morning editions of most newspapers on March 13th, the day after the first hydrogen explosion, had the term core melt in their headlines, but it has seldom been found since then. Instead, a more general term damages on fuel rods has been used based on TEPCO announcements or other official statements. This might be because they are attempting to avoid the anxiety evoked by the term core melt.

As for the INES scale representing the severity of nuclear accidents, NISA's initial evaluation of "about Level 4" gave a strong impression that they underestimated the severity of the accident. The media should have noticed that something was wrong. I believe that the media's independent estimation of the severity level on the early phase utilizing the information and analysis of overseas research bodies would also have been useful in arriving at the truth.

Units 1 to 4 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant = photograph courtesy by The Tokyo Electric Power Company, March 15th, 2011

Disclosure and open media create trust

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred, the authorities disclosed much less information than that released on this Fukushima nuclear accident. A Norwegian scholar published a study conducted about 10 years after the accident, in which citizens were interviewed about how they responded to the Chernobyl accident. According to this study, the media often attempted to prevent exacerbating anxiety among citizens by suppressing information that could potentially have caused inappropriate responses, but the study points out that citizens felt anger or hostility against concealing vital information.

We may be able to draw some lessons from the fact that suppressed media reports caused distrust among people. Avoiding hiding scientific information as much as possible and calmly delivering it would ultimately lead to gaining trust from citizens, which is particularly dependent on open reporting by the media as well as disclosure by the government.

Specialist journalists should be more active

The title of this essay is "Did They Overcome the Imperial General Headquarters' Announcement?"

The national papers and NHK made various efforts to create some good articles. My view is, however, that the general tendency has remained a kind of Imperial General Headquarters' Announcement, which means that the media transmits the announcements of the government and TEPCO verbatim. That is, the media is covering information from the government, TEPCO, and other authorities in a passive manner.

As mentioned earlier, the media can cover stories more actively, i.e., reporting based on the fundamental perspective in the form of In the First Place.

When it comes to articles about radioactive rays, specialist reporters should know that what is of primary importance is, for example, the accumulated amount of radiation we are exposed to constantly through the year, aside from instantaneous radiation. As for the setup of evacuation areas, the current configuration is in concentric circles extending 20 and 30 km from the nuclear plant. The media, however, should have been able to point out from the outset the necessity of considering other formations, because experience from the Chernobyl disaster tells us that actual radiation quantity is affected by the direction of the wind, as seen in Iitate Village.

To achieve such active reporting, journalists specializing in science and technology need to become more active than ever. Specialist journalists are journalists who are equipped with accurate knowledge and prescience about their specialty and who have the ability to raise questions independently. Science journalists must not merely be spokespersons for scientists. They should enhance knowledge through daily coverage and reading to cultivate their ability to examine problems independently and critically when the occasion demands. I hope that the mass media also train specialist journalists from such a point of view.

Referential URL:

Web Magazine Spork!

M.A. Program in Journalism, Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University

The Waseda Journalism Award in Memory of Ishibashi Tanzan

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

[Brief Biography]
Professor Segawa graduated after completing the History and Philosophy of Sciences course at the Department of Arts and Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo in 1977. He served as a correspondent in Washington, D.C., Head of the Division of Science and Environment, an Assistant Managing Editor, an Editorialist, and others for the Mainichi Newspapers. In 1998, he was awarded the JCJ Incentive Award (current JCJ Award) as a member of the reporter group for the coverage of depleted uranium ammunition. Professor Segawa has been the program manager for the M.A. Program in Journalism at the Graduate School of Political Science in Waseda University since January 2008. He is also a member of the Planning Committee at the Japan National Press Club, and a board member for Japanese Association of Science and Technology Journalists.

[Major Publications]
Note on Health Food [Kenko Shokuhin Noto] (Iwanami Shinsho) and The Scene of Heart Transplants [Shinzo Ishoku No Genba] (Shinchosha). Co-authored and co-edited publications include Explosion of 3 Billion People in Asia [Ajia 30 Oku-nin No Bakuhatsu] (Mainichi Newspapers), White Paper of People Studying Science [Rikei Hakusho] (Kodansha), How Should Journalism Face Science and Technology? [Jaanarizumu Ha Kagaku Gijutsu To Dou Mukiau-ka] (Tokyo Denki University Press), Kenkyusha English and Japanese Dictionary of Ecology [Eiwa/Waei Ekoroji Yogo Jiten] (Kenkyusha, as a contributor and supervisor), etc.

Webpage introducing the faculty at J-School: