Saturday, February 25, 2012

is this an accurate appraisal?

Telegraph | I watched the terrible events which took place in Japan on March 11 last year with an appalled fascination. The first truly epic natural disaster to be recorded and beamed into a billion homes in real time produced dreadful images which will be seared into my memory forever.

Most terrible of all, was the black wave, a tide of death which we saw apparently creeping over the landscape like a flood of treacle. Looking more closely, this feature of the tsunami was revealed to be an illusion. The sight of cars pushed this way and that away, doing

U–turns on the highways bisecting this workaday landscape of open fields, scrappy industrial estates and boatyards was the giveaway. These waves were sweeping away everything in their path and sluicing whole villages and towns into the Pacific This was no tide of treacle; it was a wall of destruction travelling at 40 or 50mph.

Hundreds, thousands of people were being killed before my eyes, some in the most horrible way. And on that first day, like all journalists, I began writing about the disaster much as I had written about the 2004 earthquake and tsunamis which had devastated the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

But then something odd happened. When it became clear the waves had struck a nuclear power plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, 100 or so miles north of Tokyo, it was almost as if the great disaster we had witnessed had been erased from view. Suddenly, all the reports concentrated on the possibility of a reactor meltdown, the overheating fuel rods, and the design flaws in this ancient plant.

I too found the nuclear angle compelling. The forces of nature meet human hubris and the terror of the unchained atom. There was human drama, the whiff of cover-ups, institutional incompetence, heroism (the famous Fukushima 50), and pretty soon an international angle as “deadly clouds of radiation” formed (which turned out to be nothing of the sort).

Soon we journalists became versed in the terminology of nuclear disaster – sieverts and millisieverts, the difference between pressurised and boiling water reactors, the half-lives of various isotopes of caesium and iodine.

It was at this point, at around day three, that I realised that something had gone seriously wrong with the reporting of the biggest natural disaster to hit a major industrialised nation for a century. We had forgotten the real victims, the 20,000-and-counting Japanese people killed, in favour of a nuclear scare story.