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This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

***I wrote this in haste because I was incensed about the coverage in the foreign media. However, I realize now that this was a highly emotionally charged response. Read the rewrite here which is more objective, detailed, and to be honest, convincing. ***

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Well-Stocked Supermarket Shelves in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

I think it’s time I checked in with another update from Tokyo to set the record straight. If you’ve been reading the foreign press about the “toxic cloud” hanging over Tokyo, you should know that I’m fine. Everyone in Tokyo is fine. The mask and the bathtub? I’m not so worried about those any more. The only exposure we’re worried about is exposure to sensationalist bullshit printed in the foreign press that is worrying our families and causing panic.

This is not Chernobyl – Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

This morning the British press was alive with the news that the Foreign Embassy in Tokyo were “urging their citizens to get out of the capital.” This is terrible journalism. The profession may be all about making the implicit explicit, but this stretches the truth of the statement too far. The statement reiterated the Japanese government’s assertion that the 30 kilometre radius around the Fukushimi I plant is the only area in which radiation levels might POTENTIALLY damage health. They then said:

“Due to the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility and potential disruptions to the supply of goods, transport, communications, power and other infrastructure, British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area.”

In other words, they are mostly concerned about logistical problems, NOT radiation. They do not state that heightened radiation levels are behind their suggestion to Britons to “consider” leaving. Even the Guardian, a paper I usually trust, totally misreported this with: “Britain, France and other countries advised their citizens to ‘consider’ leaving Tokyo because of heightened radiation levels.”

I understand that anxiety is rising because the Fukushima plant is not stabilizing and is still dangerously overheated. But we need to look at the facts in a balanced and measured way rather than causing wide spread panic. Most journalists seem to have taken “the evolving situation at the Fukushima nuclear facility” to mean “ALL BRITS ARE GOING TO FRY IN RADIOACTIVE SOUP AND MUST FLEE AT ONCE.” I exaggerate, but that’s the gist. In fact, the wording of the statement is very careful and emphasizes that the only health risks are within the plant itself and the 30 kilometre radius around it. They seem to be more concerned about logistics and inconveniences such as transport and power cuts.

France’s response has been more explicit, and they have organized two planes to pick up their citizens from Narita. I think one left this morning. The only thing the British Embassy had done by the evening of the 16th was to organize a bus (!) from Sendai to Tokyo. Today they said that they would arrange for flights to Hong Kong for those who wished to leave voluntarily.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation On Human Health Source: National Institute of Radiological Sciences

I’ll take a moment to remind you that background radiation levels in Tokyo have returned to “normal” today, at 0.14 microsieverts. Normal background radiation for cities is actually higher, at 0.2. It’s clear that there is absolutely no threat whatsoever in Tokyo as the situation stands, since it has levels lower than, say, New York and even Cornwall. You are exposed to more radiation flying in a plane.

My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media. Click To Tweet

Let’s talk about some facts to straighten this out. I think The Economist did the best job of describing the nuclear power plant and the processes go on there, so if you have the time, I urge you to read it.

It is simply too difficult to go into everything that has happened as the situation continues to move too quickly to get a complete grasp of, but here is an excerpt from the very relieving discussion posted on the British Embassy’s website last night:

“Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”.

But what does that actually mean?

What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area, not, I repeat, not serious for anywhere else. Even if you get a combination of explosions it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing wind taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you added some rainfall to bring the radioactive material down to ground level, do we have a problem?

The answer is unequivocally no.

Except for unnecessary fear-mongering, there is absolutely no issue where I am. The real problems are within 30 kilometres of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres, but to 30,000 feet. It lasted not for the odd hour or so but months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was also about 30 kilometres. And outside of that exclusion zone there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had direct problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people continuing to eat and drink contaminated water and vegetables. That will not be the case here. The real issue, should any news agency choose to report it, is the area itself, the immediate vicinity, and the brave people still working there.

There is no “mass exodus” from Tokyo just yet. The bullet trains are not packed to the brim with terrified Tokyoites. It is true that many expatriates have left the country or gone west or south, farther away from Fukushima. While some Japanese have gone to stay with their families the large majority have stayed. My expatriate friends that have stayed have created a hardcore and stubborn contingent, refusing to be put off by the paranoia overseas and the frustrating chickenheartedness in the media.

Tokyo is not “gripped by panic”. It is quiet and calm. Children still play outside. People go about their daily lives, shopping and going out drinking with friends. People—including me—still go to work. The masks they wear are for hay fever, not to protect themselves from radiation. True, the streets are very empty compared to normal. Though this is largely due to the fact that train services have been canceled or reduced, not due to fears of radiation in the air.

The trains are heavily disrupted due to the rolling blackouts that are necessary to divert power up to the area affected by the quake and tsunami. But this isn’t anything to do with radiation. It’s to do with the fact that the earthquake destroyed power stations and also wiped out any power infrastructure in the north (Miyagi, Fukushima, Iwate and Ibaraki prefecture are all entirely or partly without electricity, gas or running water.) As of now, the train service is approaching—but still not quite as bad as—that of London and even upset as it is, it still bests most of the world’s.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Bags of Rice for sale in Tokyo © Sophie Knight

True, since the quake happened the shops have been amazingly bare, and some things—bread, rice, dry goods, milk, eggs, toilet paper—sell out very quickly. Today, shops seemed back to normal, all well supplied. Even when things were at their worst—which was never particularly bad—the shops were never entirely empty. Tokyoites never went hungry, and any accounts by idiotic Brits in the Sun that you read to the contrary are merely sensationalist fictions. Also, when food was short, there were no battles, no raised voices, no evident strife in the supermarkets. I don’t dare to think what would happen in England if the equivalent situation occurred. Probably a few broken noses.

Moreover, if I have to go without eggs for a few weeks, or if it got really bad and I had to live off rice, I could do it. I cannot believe that some people are not prepared to put up with that minute and trivial inconvenience and look further north, where there are reports of five people sharing a single rice ball (the size of a fist) and walking through the snow in the only set of clothes they’re left with.

The real tragedy in all of this is that hissy fits in Europe and America about radiation spreading there is detracting from the very real and catastrophic situation in Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures.

This is not Chernobyl - Response to Skewed Media Coverage of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Incident

Radiation Exposure Levels

The number of dead might rise above 10,000, but they have only the time to count the bodies and line them up. They are running short of body bags. They have no time or space to identify them. There isn’t enough food or water getting through, and now temperatures have sunk below freezing and it’s snowing.

Reports are saying that aid isn’t getting through. They say that up to 500,000 people might have lost their homes. And not only are they in shock, grieving, hungry and freezing, but they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. No nappies, no toilet roll, no blankets, no coats. If you’re in Japan, please go Second Harvest and make up a box of items for donation. This charity has already gained permission from the government (which is now necessary) to deliver the aid, and will continue to make trips up to Sendai from now on.

I didn’t expect to, but this tragedy has made me fiercely protective and proud of my adopted country, and disgusted at how the rest of the world is presenting it.

Just remember that no matter how hot these fuel rods get, there will be no Chernobyl. There might be more hydrogen-sparked explosions that spread radiation, yes, but they will not affect an area larger the 30 kilometre radius already determined. It’s being likened to the Three Mile Island incident, which happened 100 miles from New York. Tokyo is over 150 miles from Fukushima.

As a closing thought, I wish that the countries spending huge amounts of time, money and energy evacuating their citizens from Tokyo would spend the same on helping people in a very dire situation in Northern Japan.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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During The Quake


Cool Heads Must Prevail To Help Cool The Rods Updated Response to This Is Not Chernobyl


  1. Guest

    Not a response to your article as such, because I agree with pretty much everything you say – I’m totally on side. The media is a big, bad juggernaught that has no genuine empathy for the people and stories who constitute its product.

    Of course, it’s right and natural that you’ll be vehemently defensive in response to horrendous misrepresentation of facts and manipulation of emotions – and rightly so – but I can’t help thinking that whenever one finds oneself at the centre of a worldwide media circus, however heavy or pithy the subject, you loathe the way the story is reported. Because you know the truth.

    So…here’s what I believe to be a sad truth. Accept for a second that during times of crisis the global media complex is an ‘all or nothing’ machine. And that, for the time being (although this is changing fast), it’s too powerful a beast to bring down. Would you rather be in the ‘all’ camp – with correspondents parachuted in, news bulletins lengthened to glossy pseudo-entertainment, print presses stopped and pages cleared for sensationalist half-truths. Or the ‘nothing’ camp, like Brazil during the mudslides in which a thousand died but ‘all’ the media covered was the death of two people in Australian floods, or the Kashmir Earthquake that killed tens of thousands and once maybe got a 10-minute headline slot, or the situation in Darfur that goes unreported…the list goes on…

    What camp best suits the needs of the needy right now? The one with the sincere sympathies of a world-gone-mad, or the one where nobody even knows you’re hurt?

  2. guest

    I have no doubt that the media is misrepresenting facts, spreading sensationalist BS etc, but how is it that you can actually believe that because the government says “the radiation will not affect an area larger than 30 km radius” that this will be so? If the worst case scenario happens at the Fukushima reactors, everyone at a 31km radius will be perfectly safe, I suppose. That’s shockingly naive!

  3. Guest

    Your instinct is to be defensive, and I understand that. But to say ‘This is not Chernobyl’ is tempting fate. It almost certainly won’t be, and of course it’s being blown out of proportion, but there’s no reason why it absolutely couldn’t be. You shouldn’t / mustn’t leave; and of course it’s fine to go outside; of course life should go on. But you risk belittling the situation by clouding your opinion with emotion.

    I don’t see how that Embassy statement is not “urging their citizens to get out of the capital.” 😉

  4. conversion factor

    just so you know the radiation health effects are measured units/per year and the measurements from the gov are per hour, therefore if you assume environmental exposure you have to multiply the gov figures by 24hrs and then by 360days, to compare like for like.

    that’s how health physics works I’m afraid.

  5. conversion factor

    Following my earlier post

    so for example lets take the lates Gov figures we’ll take ones measured at uni campus’s because i would trust other sources at the moment because mobile measurement will be hit and miss.

    source: http://eq.wide.ad.jp/files_en/110315fukushima_2030rev2_en.pdf

    4.62msv/h = 39000+ msv/year

  6. Sophie

    Thank you. I need to do a bit of tweaking with the article obviously- really appreciate the input and corrections though.

  7. Paul

    While I am on your side with the disgust of the overblown foreign media on this, I’d like to make sure that we can all be accurate and understand the situation properly. So, units on that exposure levels (the 2nd chart) would be very useful and cause less confusion.

  8. Biggyglenn

    I agree with everything you say but to be honest the fear is natural and the Japanese goverment and the TEPCO people are not helping by being less than forthcoming with information…your charts and arguments are based on what we know and as it turns out what we know may be wrong. The truth is no one knows exactly what the effects will be or how serious. I do think the media is fear mongering but they always do. I also think to be blindly supportive of a government that is covering shit up is also wrong. The one thing i will agree 100% with out argument is that this issue is diverting the attention to the real tragedy up north…but what else is the government doing to screw that up. BTW! I stayed in Tokyo as well.

  9. tiffatron

    This article raises some great points and should help to reassure those remaining in japan, specifically tokyo and areas that for now, are deemed ‘safe’ but where uncertainty remains. For many reasons, including putting my family’s mind at ease, I chose to leave Tokyo until we have more solid information. All the emerging statistics seem promising, but we all saw how quickly things can change in an instant at 2.46pm on the 11th. No one can predict the outcome of these events therefore no-one can truly condemn the decisions or concerns of others. We have some history to compare this nuclear issue to, however it remains an unprecedented series of events. Rather than judge others for their (valid) concern, let’s channel our energy into helping those affected in the north in any way we can. And this goes both ways, the ‘goers’ should stop berating the ‘stayers’ as well – we are all entitled to make our own decision on this one. Thanks for the informative and interesting read.

  10. khoo

    I live in Mihama ward, Chiba, and, having seen the situation here, even after the oil refinery fire, I welcome Sophie Kinght’s accurate and thoughtful review of conditions in Tokyo and response to a lot of fear-mongering.

  11. Tara

    Hi Sophie. I am glad you wrote this. I lived in Tokyo for 6 years and still have a lot of friends there – both Japanese and ex-pat. Regardless of what I read in the UK media, I know from them that they are just getting on with their lives. They are suffering from the inconveniences that power shortages bring, but their main concern is for the people in the north east of the country.

  12. Thinkbeforeyouspeak

    I applaud your writing but you have may be misunderstanding some of your research. We will never know how many people died directly because of Chernobyl because the Soviet Union intentionally misreported deaths due to radiation poisoning.

    The follow-up effects were devastating: this paper shows the incidences of thyroid cancer in children 7 years after the Chernobyl incident [http://www.ratical.com/radiation/inetSeries/ChernyThyrd.html] Incidentally, Gomel (the first city that the radioactive plume passed over) was roughly the same distance from Chernobyl as Tokyo is from Fukushima Daiichi. The thing is that Tokyo is home to roughly 36million people, while Gomel at the time of the Chernobyl disaster was about 500,000. Since Chernobyl around 10,000 people have developed thyroid cancer in the greater Gomel region and according to WHO predictions up to 100,000 people are likely to develop thyroid cancer in their lifetime.

    There were increases in birth defects across Europe; significant increases in Leukemia in Germany, Greece, Scotland and Romania;
    For Japan, the worst case scenario is not having the radioactive particulate reach 30,000 feet. If that happened, the bulk of it would hit the jet stream and be distributed far and wide over the Pacific, into the United States and Canada where the affects would be difficult to measure but less serious than what we are looking at here. Our worst case scenario isn’t a reactor meltdown… well it starts with one but doesn’t end with it.

    Our worst case scenario would be a meltdown at one of the reactors. It would only take one to raise the radiation in the plant to dangerous levels – high enough that the cleanup crew would be forced to retreat or sacrifice themselves to possible death or almost certain longterm disability. If the plant were abandoned the rest of the reactors could cook off, so to could the tons of spent fuel in the reactor ponds. If that were to happen, the spent fuel rods would reach a temperature of a little over 2000C. The heat of the melting fuel rods would carry the particulate high into the air, even without any explosion – which would also be possible given the amount of hydrogen that would be present. Chernobyl’s effects were felt far, far away. We would only need the winds to carry the particles as far as Tokyo to have a devastating effect.

    For the record, I don’t think we are going to see a nuclear catastrophe – but I think that you might underestimate how close we actually came. If things were left in Tepco’s hands, we might very well be in a far more serious situation than we are in now. Your article downplays the potential risks of the situation – especially for a country with a population as dense as Japan. Obviously people would avoid contaminated food and milk – but if the accident occurred when wind conditions were unfavorable a lot of farmland could be contaminated. Fukushima is right next to Ibaraki, a very important agricultural region for Japan.

    Personally, I am staying put – but it is not a decision to take lightly and it is not fair to be dismissive of people who decide to leave. There is nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution. The media have been sensationalizing the situation – that hasn’t stopped the 100,000 SDF personnel and teams of rescue workers from all over the world from searching for survivors of the other two disasters.

    It is a shame that all of this detracts from the plight of the scores who have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami – but given the scope of its potential affect it is no less deserving of attention.

  13. Belvin55

    Sophies article is well overdue. The foreign media has blown this situation out of proportion….their sensationalism journalism leads to things like panic buying (which has already been seen in Tokyo) the flow on effect of this is that there was a shortage of resources for those in the tsunami affected areas. It is also not a time to breed distrust in the government, at a time like this people need to trust what they are being told by the government and media and feel that they are fully informed or there could be mass panic.
    I was in Fukushima when the earthquake hit and I travelled to Sendai the day after the tsunami to help find a friends parents and have also been to Fukushima to help evacuate friends out of the exclusion zone. Everybody is being checked for radiation and more than adequate precautions have been taken. I can choose to leave the country at any time (but have decided to stay) and will not be misinformed by the international media who in many cases are not reporting accurately or selectively. If people really want to know the truth I recommend they listen to the news and in Japanese and experts here in Japan, speak to their friends who live in the immediate area of the plants and ask about the precautions and checks being taken and listen to those professionals who are most informed on the current situation.

  14. bobufet

    Nicely written piece and I think most agree that Tokyo is not in immediate danger from this disaster but Thinkbeforeyouspeak makes a lot of sense.

    This is also an interesting read http://www.japanfocus.org/-Ishibashi-Katsuhiko/2495 for those who really care about Japan.

  15. Kimpossible

    Rest assured, CNN today reported about the upshot of the Hiroshima blast, as they protrayed a survivor who now uses radiation as medicine, for the good of humanity. So you can rest assured that the hullabaloo in the media has calmed considerably. But wait, there was one other story, something about tap water in Tokyo being unsafe now for infant formula. Unfortunately parents there are finding out a little late. Maybe you don’t have children in your household, so you are unconcerned. I do hope you take necessary precautions for your safety.

    You are correct, this is not Chernobyl, we really won’t know what Fukishima actually is until the last reactor has been encased in its concrete tomb, until the last worker has contracted acute radiation poisoning, until maybe thirty years from now. Here is some information from a respected scientist in California who wants to share a few lessons of Chernobyl, .

  16. Dfds

    What They’re Covering Up At Fukushima & Why comparisons w/ X-rays + CT scans are lies & Tokyo and Japan aren’t safe

    福島原発事故 メディア報道のあり方 広瀬隆

  17. Kimpossible

    New Greenpeace report places Fukishima on same scale level as Chernobyl

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