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Observations Medicine and the Media

Panic about nuclear apocalypse overshadows Japan’s real plight

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 22 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1845
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}

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 ( 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 (, 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 …

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