By William Boardwell
[...]On October 16, the Fukushima Daiichi’s three melted-down reactors escaped a new crisis from Typhoon Wipha, as the Pacific hurricane managed to kill 17 people on off-shore islands but passed far enough from the mainland that Fukushima got only a heavy soaking. But that was enough to create conditions on the ground that worsened later, with an unusually heavy rainstorm over the weekend, as The New York Times reported on October 22, starting this way:
“The operator of Japan’s wrecked nuclear plant said Monday that rainwater from a weekend storm became contaminated as it collected behind barriers meant to stop radiation leaks. The toxic water overflowed those barriers at several locations, with some of it possibly spilling into the Pacific Ocean….”
One wonders that a Times editor would allow a story to pass when it avers only a “possibility” of radioactive water flowing from the plant to the ocean. That flow has been a chronic, uninterrupted reality at Fukushima since the disaster began in March 2011. The generally accepted estimate (as in the Washington Post of October 21) is that 400 tons of contaminated water flows into the Pacific daily – about 96,000 gallons a day. That’s actual, not just “possible.” And as news goes, it’s also a lot less reassuring.
Not reassured yet? How about some clever, distracting wordplay?
But to the Times, this leakage was just “the latest in a litany of lapses and aggravations for the problem-plagued cleanup” of Fukushima. That’s awfully clever and dismissive language to describe a situation that no one knows how to fix, that still has pockets of lethal radiation, that may cost $100 billion over the next 40 years, and that has left more than 90,000 residents unable to return home. Those people may be beyond reassurance, but it’s the Times readership that needs to be calmed.
And why should we care what the Times says? Because, like it or not, it’s still the paper of record in some meaningful ways. The way the Times plays a story still matters. It wasn’t that long ago that the Times enabled reporter Judith Miller to help lie the country into our dishonest and disastrous war on Iraq.
The Times agenda regarding nuclear power has long been rather too frequently little more than cheerleading, interrupted by fits of coerced reporting when events like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl left the paper little choice. Of course the coverage has not been monochromatic, but the paper’s default position seems to be to promote nuclear power by minimizing its risks.
So it’s little surprise, even if it’s a coincidence, that the same day the Times reported dismissively on Fukushima on page A11, it also featured an op-ed page piece titled “Taming Radiation Fears.” The piece argues somewhat disingenuously that the radiological damage from events like Fukushima is not nearly as bad as the psychological damage they cause. As an example, it cites a Japanese Education Ministry report that, because schools near Fukushima have curtailed outdoors exercise, students in the Fukushima area have become the most obese in Japan.