My catastrophe is bigger than yours
Anti-nuclear activists’ exploitation of the instability at Fukshima is a historic low point - even for them.
The grief of those bereaved following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, their attempts to somehow get on with their lives, to salvage something from the swamped wreckage, just didn’t strike the right chord for some Western spectators. They wanted more. More devastation, more disaster - more titillation. And what better way to sate their pangloomian desires than a potential nuclear holocaust?
If accusing parts of the media, campaign groups and politicians of uranium-fuelled sadism seems a little harsh, the UK coverage alone provides more than enough evidence for the prosecution. No sooner had the tsunami inundated vast swathes of Japan than the headlines were excitedly imagining the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. ‘Fears of catastrophe as nuclear plant explodes’, chirruped The Sunday Times as news emerged that the Fukushima nuclear power plant had been damaged. Elsewhere, the Observer heard ‘an echo of Chernobyl’.
As the week progressed, the End of Days approached. The Sun seemed to be promoting a series of 1970s-style disaster movies on its front page, complete with full-page radiation-warning mock-ups. By Tuesday, the editors had settled for a handy biblical hook for their coverage: ‘Apocalypse Japan.’ On the same day, the Daily Mail ran with a simple headline ‘MELTDOWN’. Given that there has yet to be a meltdown, the subheading was on hand to lend a bit of clarity: ‘Catastrophe fears grow as Japan races against time.’ While Japan may have been ‘racing against time’, the Daily Mail under the heading ‘Nature’s Deadly Rage’ was taking a more passive approach in a piece called: ‘Countdown to nuclear catastrophe.’
And count down the live media did. Live updates were available online, broadcasters showed endless live footage from the Fukushima reactors, and commentators sat around in London studios endlessly, groundlessly speculating about the extent to which ‘the Japanese had lost control of the situation’. Even the BBC’s flagship ‘serious’ news programme Newsnight was positively heady with catastrophe. There correspondent Matt Frei stood, in Tokyo, waxing ominous about ‘nature’s fury’ and warning nonsensically of ‘the whims of fusion’. Someone at the BBC really should have told Matt that nuclear power generation currently involves splitting atoms, not joining them. Still, while he couldn’t tell his fusion from his fission, he knew what he liked, and that was a looming terminus, the prospect of something so terrible, something so devastating, that the ‘most technologically advanced country on the planet’ was about to be humbled.
It didn’t matter that those people actually living in Japan seemed far less terrified by events than those watching them from afar (as Sophie Knight describes on spiked today). It didn’t matter that, as one reporter in Fukushima reported, the town nearest the nuclear power plant had virtually returned to normal. And it didn’t matter that virtually every scientific expert, normally so reliable when it comes to bigging up bad news, said there was little to worry about. The Western media was so transfixed by a catastrophe to come that reality came a poor second to nightmare.
Those titillated by live updates from the End Times were joined by those keen to exploit it. Here, the tragedy in Japan became little more than fodder for those eager to condemn nuclear power. The Guardian excitedly ran a piece from the German magazine Der Spiegel: ‘Germany can no longer pretend nuclear power is safe. The effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan show it is over. Done. Finished. Nuclear energy cannot be controlled by humans.’ Greenpeace, meanwhile, has barely been able to conceal its delight. Admittedly, executive directive Kumi Naidoo was keen, in a New York Times article, to express the ‘grief and empathy I feel for the Japanese people’. But with that out of the way, he quickly got on to what he really wanted to talk about, that ‘expensive and deadly distraction’: nuclear power. ‘Nuclear technology will always be vulnerable to human error, natural disaster, design failure or terrorist attack’, he declared: ‘What we are seeing at Fukushima right now are failures of the systems.’ The Observer editorial last weekend also invoked the potential catastrophe at Fukushima to show the ‘danger of relying on nuclear power’.
In the attacks on nuclear power, predictions of catastrophe, intimations of the apocalypse, are argument enough it seems. The disaster in Japan is rendered non-specific. It has been disgracefully used and abused as a mere example of human folly – the folly of believing we can master nature, the folly of believing nuclear power can be safe.
But the curious thing is that the oblivion-obsessed are not confined to those keen to point out our arrogant folly in pursuing nuclear power. In fact, the spectre of climate-change catastrophe has driven others to advocate nuclear power. One prominent green explained this week why the Fukushima disaster has convinced him that nuclear power is a crucial part of saving us from a carbon-choked demise. After all, if Japan’s aging power reactors can survive nature’s tantrum, a new generation of nuclear stations in the West should help us survive her warmed-up fury. Another columnist at the Guardian argues in a similar vein. If nuclear power is thrown out with the tsunami water, he argues, ‘the planet will suffer’.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Sir David King, once Britain’s chief scientific officer, embraced nuclear power while chiding his nuclear-hating comrades in the green army for their ‘luddism’. And, as Brendan O’Neill points out elsewhere, environmental Godfather, James Lovelock, argued in 2004 that only by shifting from fossil fuels to nuclear can we appease ‘the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet’. You can’t postpone Gaia’s revenge without splitting a few atoms, seems to be the gist.
With the catastrophists and old end-of-timers dominating the debate about energy, both sides simply oppose one doomsday scenario with another. If the radiation doesn’t get us, then climate change will. But there’s more to having a proper debate about energy than offering up competing visions of humanity’s self-induced demise. Rather, to really promote an energy source like nuclear, a bit more faith in humanity is needed. An argument for a better life, not merely a less eco-sinful one is needed: an argument in which energy is just part of a solution to our ever-developing, ever-expanding needs, and not a problem.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.