Observations Medicine and the Media

Panic about nuclear apocalypse overshadows Japan’s real plight

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1845 (Published 22 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1845
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have left an estimated 20 000 people dead, and many more are missing or homeless. Margaret McCartney wonders why the world’s media are more concerned with hyping the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Japan is everywhere. Recent events from this semicolon of archipelago 2500 km long have filled the newswires, cables, internet, press, and radio over the past two weeks. On 11 March, in what the British Geological Survey described as “unprecedented,” the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, a “mega-thrust” of magnitude 9.0, had its epicentre to the east of Japan (www.bgs.ac.uk/research/highlights/earthquakes/honshuMarch2011.html). The quake was followed by a tsunami that struck the northeast coast. The Red Cross reported on 17 March that 4300 people were confirmed dead (www.redcross.org.uk/About-us/News/2011/March/Japan-Red-Cross-helps-earthquake-and-tsunami-survivors), but this number is expected to rise to 20 000, with almost half a million people displaced or evacuated.

Yet it is not this human disaster that is the source of ongoing headlines and debate; rather it is anxiety about two of Japan’s 55 nuclear power stations, focusing on the Fukushima plant. Five nuclear reactors lost their cooling ability in the earthquake, and a state of emergency was then declared. The Sun newspaper ran a front page headline superimposed on a yellow and black radiation symbol, “Exodus from Tokyo—1000s flee poison cloud,” and declared, “Japan is teetering on the brink of nuclear catastrophe amid fears a radioactive cloud could envelop Tokyo’s 13 million residents. The Foreign Office warned Brits to avoid the capital as it was feared a SECOND nuclear reactor was heading for meltdown after Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.”

The next day the physicist and television presenter Brian Cox wrote a piece for the very same newspaper: “Damage to nuclear reactors sounds very frightening—but the first thing to say is that they just cannot explode like nuclear bombs.” Professor Cox went on, “The only real contamination risk is from small amounts of nuclear material being released into the air in this steam. It sounds scary, but the levels of radiation released in this way are very small—probably about the same as you would expect on a long-distance transatlantic flight” (www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3468502/Its-scarybut-nothing-like-a-nuclear-bomb.html).

Nevertheless the same newspaper later reported, with pictures of the damaged reactor, “Revealed: the stricken reactor spewing radiation,” adding that this “terrifying image reveals for the first time the cause of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown” (www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/3475902/Nuke-workers-note-to-wife-Live-well-I-cannot-be-home-for-a-while.html). The theme of a nuclear panic in Japan was taken up by the Daily Mail, which dedicated its front page to a picture of a Japanese woman in a face mask, with the headline “A nation in the grip of nuclear panic—Japan’s nuclear disaster spirals out of control amid warnings that it could end in ‘apocalypse.’” Unnamed experts “warned that they have 48 hours to avoid another Chernobyl,” the paper said.

Sky News joined in, saying, “Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels outside the 18-mile exclusion zone were not high enough to cause an immediate health risk. ‘People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this,’ he told a news conference. However, Mr Edano’s comments have failed to provide reassurance as thousands of people have been cleared from their homes, and thousands more have chosen to move away from the region surrounding the Fukushima plant.”

The Guardian described “panic buying in Tokyo,” saying that “fears are rising that if the hoarding frenzy continues it will affect the ability to deliver emergency supplies to the disaster zone. ‘The situation is hysterical,’ said Tomonao Matsuo, a spokesman for the instant noodle maker Nissin Foods. ‘People feel safer just by buying Cup Noodles’” (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/15/japan-nuclear-emergency-panic-buying). Most printed photographs of Japanese people failed to show much panic, however, with sadness, social order, and facemasks prominent.

The actual aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami seemed to have been pushed off the front pages while a nuclear “disaster” that hadn’t actually affected any members of the public took centre stage instead. The BBC reported, “Europe’s energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Tokyo had almost lost control of the situation at Fukushima. ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen,’ he told the European Parliament” (www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-asia-pacific-12749444).

Some scientists gave rather more rational risk assessments. John Beddington, the UK chief scientific officer, gave an interview on the website of the British embassy in Tokyo: “So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health” (http://ukinjapan.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=News&id=566799182). He followed this up on his Twitter account, but it seemed to make little impression on the UK media otherwise.

Gerry Thomas, chair in molecular pathology at Imperial College London, had a wider audience when she told Channel 4 News, “Precautions taken so far should be sufficient to protect people near the site. There is no significant release of radiation yet; it’s really only the workers that are at risk. We are not looking at an accident anything like Chernobyl.”

She continued, “One thing we should have learnt post-Chernobyl is not to spread panic and make claims that turn out to be wrong. The psychological damage being done now to the Japanese is huge. At Chernobyl we told local people that they would get cancer and die and they are still living with the fact that we gave them false information . . . Tens of thousands of people [in Japan] have lost their lives. Even if the worst case scenario happened and there was an accident 10 times the size of Chernobyl, you wouldn’t have as many deaths as that. We are missing the point here and we are panicking that poor, savaged population about radiation that is not going to harm them” (www.channel4.com/news/japan-nuclear-panic-is-over-reaction-say-scientists).


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1845


  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

  • bmj.com News: Death toll climbs and health needs escalate in Japan (BMJ 2011;342:d1859, doi:10.1136/bmj.d1859). Read Ryuki Kassai’s blog from Fukushima at bmj.com/blogs.

View Abstract

Sign in

Log in through your institution