Hiding Death and Devastation – On the Moral Character of Antinuclear Activism

March 11th 2011 has certainly been a watershed moment for antinuclear activism. It is widely perceived in Germany as the day when the antinuclear movement was proven right.

I want to make the case here, that it has instead revealed its moral character.

In our time the most comprehensive source of general knowledge and even news is the Wikipedia, although it has been argued that its articles are merely a reflection of the political consensus in some cases. A lot can be determined just from looking at where priorities are put in an article, what information is mentioned where and how often. I will let the following speak for itself.

The Tohoku Earthquake article in the English Wikipedia is a great example, although a surprisingly mild one all things considered. 22 months after the earthquake it has undergone numerous changes and revisions. As the wikipedia entry is a long article, I will confine the discussion here to the introduction, where a reader may expect to find the most important information written up in a concise manner. The current revisions in other languages will follow thereafter.

By the end of March 2011 the introduction started with a basic paragraph of the earthquake data – strength of the earthquake, epicentre etc. This was followed by a paragraph on the tsunami. The third paragraph started out stating casualties and missing, destroyed buildings and infrastructure, with the second half of the paragraph dedicated entirely to the nuclear accident in Fukushima Daiichi. A fourth paragraph puts the earthquake into perspective by stating that it was the worst in the history of Japan and giving a short account of expected economic damage.

There is nothing wrong with this. Basic physical data come first for reference. Then a description of the triggered tsunami. This is followed by the effects of those devastating events, from the most direct and immediate (dead people, destroyed buildings) to the indirect and longterm – destroyed infrastructure immediately affecting millions of inhabitants, with a large part dedicated to the nuclear accident which is likely to have longest lasting effect. Economic effects are last and only one part of a separate paragraph.

By the end of April 2011 the article had undergone several changes. The introduction now consists of three paragraphs, with the last mostly unchanged. The first paragraph still serves basic earthquake data, although the tsunami effects are confined to those on Japan. It is called the worlds fifth strongest earthquake right away, before the height of the tsunami. After this the following sentence is introduced:

“In addition to loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, the tsunami caused a number of nuclear accidents, of which by far the most serious was an ongoing level 7 event and 20 km (12 mi) evacuation zone around the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (see Fukushima I nuclear accidents).”

This sentence proved to be long lived. It is a moral fig-leaf which acknowledges the fact that some people presumably died and some destruction took place, but without any detail and without putting it in any perspective whatsoever. By contrast, the nuclear accident is discussed within the exact same sentence in the greatest detail possible for a single sentence to provide, including numerous links and references to other articles.The formulation “still ongoing” is debatable, as by April 30th the situation was largely under control. Releases of radioactive material were minimal compared to March. It is not debatable, however, that the accident was “still ongoing”  in June 2012, as the article states. (This does not mean, that there is no such thing as an aftermath.)

In this version, the discussion of death and human suffering is relegated to the second paragraph. Instead, the role of human suffering is further degraded. Instead of mentioning the number of people who died or are missing, it was deemed more important to state that:

In Japan, the overall event is known as the “Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster” (東日本大震災 Higashi Nihon Daishinsai?)[15][fn 1] The overall cost could exceed $300 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster on record.[16][17][18]

The expected economic losses of the earthquake are not only mentioned by number, but further substantiated by no less than three footnotes. Surely, this article has got its priorities straight.

The second paragraph finally mentions the death toll, along with destroyed infrastructure and its impact on the population. It then goes on to repeat all the information on the nuclear accident already provided in the first paragraph.  Giving even more detail thus:

“The Japanese National Police Agency has confirmed 15,878 deaths,[4] 6,126 injured,[5] and 2,713 people missing[6] across eighteen prefectures, as well as over 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.[18][19] The earthquake and tsunami caused extensive and severe structural damage in Japan, including heavy damage to roads and railways as well as fires in many areas, and a dam collapse.[14][20] Around 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water.[21] Many electrical generators were taken down, and at least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that had built up within their outer containment buildings after cooling system failure. Residents within a 20 km (12 mi) radius of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and a 10 km (6 mi) radius of the Fukushima II Nuclear Power Plant were evacuated. In addition, the U.S. recommended that its citizens evacuate up to 80 km (50 mi) of the plant.[23]

We’re still talking about the very introduction of the actual article, where such redundancy is detrimental to the goal of giving a concise overview. Redundancy is, however, instrumental in making sure to get a message across. Redundancy is provided for three aspects of the situation within the introduction.

So what are the most important messages that were worth repeating? The first is the nuclear accident in the second paragraph. The second is that it was the worst in Japanese history. And finally the magnitude of economic losses. Conspicuously left out: Death and human suffering caused by the tsunami.

Yes, this article sure has its priorities straight. (And I won’t even argue about that last statement in the quote that was made in ignorance of the actual situation in Japan.)

Another major shift occurs some time during 2011. The first paragraph is now fully sanitized from any suggestion of death or suffering. Even the fig-leaf disappeared. Instead in concludes almost whimsical stating that:

“The earthquake moved Honshu 2.4 m (8 ft) east and shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm (4 in) and 25 cm (10 in).[18][19][20]

Notice the abundance of sources from which this factoid is derived. Right thereafter the second paragraph, by December 2011, says:

“The tsunami caused a number of nuclear accidents, primarily the ongoing level 7meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant complex, and the associated evacuation zones affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.[21][22] Many electrical generators were taken down, and at least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that had built up within their outer containment buildings after cooling system failure. Residents within a 20 km (12 mi) radius of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant and a 10 km (6.2 mi) radius of the Fukushima II Nuclear Power Plant were evacuated. In addition, the U.S. recommended that its citizens evacuate up to 80 km (50 mi) of the plant.[23]

Hey folks, nothing happened. If it weren’t for those darn nuclear power plants, this wouldn’t even be a disaster! Well, in fact we know that whole town along the japanese coast were washed into the sea. It did not occur to the authors of this introduction that this was even so much as worth mentioning. The only saving grace is that the victims are mentioned afterwards in the third paragraph. And that’s the still the English article … wait for the German one!

To my great surprise and some relieve, the only change yours truly made to the article, on September 4th 2012, has not been reverted. I put the paragraph mentioning the casualties and general destruction above the paragraph describing the nuclear accident. Apparently, the reason I gave was found to be acceptable: “Casualties should have priority over nuclear accidents.”

Now, the English article may have been a moral disaster, but that is nothing in comparison with the current article in the German Wikipedia. (I am a native German, but I don’t edit articles in the German Wikipedia due to the positively negative attitude of administrators towards people actually changing articles. Besides, the article on the Tohoku Earthquake was locked down for a long time.)

The two paragraph introduction is perfectly sanitized. It is reduced to the physical characteristics of the earthquake and the tsunami it caused. There is not a hint to human casualties and destruction caused by the tsunami with the only exception of the damage in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This is also the way German news report about the tsunami and earthquake. Usually, the earthquake and tsunami are conflated and referred to by mentioning the word “Fukushima”. Casualties almost universally go unmentioned or are at best implied by such linguistic atrocities as “heavy tsunami damage”.

The degree of sanitation is indeed remarkable and only comparable to East German propaganda techniques. The article itself starts with a lengthy and technical description of the earthquake split in two parts. “Tectonic overview” and “Development” (of the earthquake). A comparison with the 2004 tsunami article makes it clear that while a short seismic explanation is indeed typical for German earthquake articles, the length and degree of detail is ludicrous and in no way justified. It takes up several pages, including several maps and tables, despite covering a much smaller geographic area than the 2004 tsunami.

By the point the tsunami is introduced into the article as the 3rd part in the articles hierarchy, the only damage mentioned so far is Fukushima Daiichi. The first paragraph mentions that 470 square kilometers were flooded and the tsunami reached 16m in Minamisanriku in as many words. Fukushima, of course, makes its first appearance in the second sentence of this part. Yes, we are far below the introduction. Well into the article and so far nobody died.

It is only by the end of the third paragraph of the third section – 1780 words into the article – that it is first mentioned that anybody died in the tsunami at all!

For comparison: this blog entry is now 1580 words long. (Oh, and thank you for reading this far.)

By the point that the first comprehensive number of dead people caused by the tsunami is mentioned in an extremely short section named “Opfer” (victims), we’re literally half way into the article. ( Around the 3000 words mark.) This part doesn’t even go to the trouble of making a list of casualties by geographic region, making the section about as long as, but less informative than, the section on damages to undersea glassfibre cables. A detailed and abundantly linked section on Fukushima Daiichi accident follows.

The french article introduces the topic with the usual data on the where, when and how strong of the earthquake. And even though three quarters of the second paragraph of the introduction deal with the Fukushima accident, that first quarter mentions the number of casualies first and states that the earthquake proof construction of houses in Japan prevented further victims by the earthquake itself. The introduction is concluded by a comparison with the Kobe earthquake and estimated economic losses.

Stretching my linguistic capacities somewhat, the Spanish article follows the German pattern of drowning readers in technicalities, sanitizing the introduction and taking almost 2600 words until mentioning the number of victims. We do, however, learn from the introduction the number of casualties of the last earthquake that happened in the area in 1994. It was a mag 7.8 earthquake with 3 dead and 300 wounded. Not a word about the casualties of the March 11th earthquake of 2011 that this article is supposedly about. Stange isn’t it? To their credit, the nuclear accident is mentioned in the article itself only after the victims were given their due respect. The Catalan article is lifted straight from the spanish.

The minority of Galego speakers in Spain and Portugal has their own article as well, stating right in the second paragraph after the usual technicalities that there is no official number of dead, but there are thousands.

The Portugese article follows the pattern of the March 31st 2011 article in English, making sure to mention casualties and immediate effects of the earthquake and tsunami first in the second paragraph.

The introduction of the Dutch article puts households without electricity and water, as well as the Fukushima accident, above casualties in that now well-known pattern.

The Italian article has a very concise and factual introduction. Total confirmed casualties are mentioned at the end of the first paragraph in the article, after a slightly more comprehensive description of the earthquake.

The Romanian article manages to discuss the accident of Fukushima Daiichi and radioactivity before any discussion of the tsunami that was the cause of the accident. The introduction – par for the course – doesn’t mention casualties, destroyed cities or anything else that might detract from Fukushima.

The Danish article takes a new approach by listing the news as they came in from news reporting agencies and TV broadcasters. This means that on the one hand, they do indeed mention casualties first, but only the roughly 1000 who were confirmed dead within the first hours, before going on to report the (then just) troubles at Fukushima Daiichi. This figure is of course updated later on.

Finally, the Norwegian Wikipedia has what seems to be a very decent, yet concise, article. Giving a short description of what happened, casualties and damages in the introduction. I don’t even mind that casualty numbers are not repeated in the main article, concise as it is.

Doing more of this would require leaving the Roman and German languages behind, which is beyond my capability, without either major guesswork or use of online translating tools.

I think the point has been made anyway.

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