John E. Sununu

Amid crippling woes, perspective is lost

Japan’s nuclear crisis pales in comparison to the devastating quake and tsunami

The death toll from the two disasters could exceed 20,000, despite the fact that the country was relatively well prepared for such events. The death toll from the two disasters could exceed 20,000, despite the fact that the country was relatively well prepared for such events. (Kyodo News via Associated Press)
By John E. Sununu
March 28, 2011

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SOMETIMES WE lose perspective. Sailing to Bermuda years ago, the only nervous moment was watching a line of waterspouts approaching on the horizon as we neared the Gulf Stream. Without any scale of reference, it was impossible to tell whether they were 100 feet high or 1,000, unclear whether they were a mile away, or 10.

Perspective gives us the ability to accurately contrast the large with the small, and the important with the less important. Without it we are lost in a world where all ideas, news, and information look the same. We cannot differentiate, we cannot prioritize, and we cannot make good choices.

With their access to historical records, experts, and a network of information gatherers at the source, news and media outlets should be in an ideal position to help provide us with perspective. The experience with the Japanese earthquake and tsunami demonstrates this is not the case. In a crisis situation where perspective is of greatest value, the public has been poorly served by media that appear unable or unwilling to provide it.

The events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility triggered by the March 11 earthquake constitute the second-worst civilian nuclear plant incident ever — far more significant in scope than Three Mile Island. But it pales in comparison to the devastation, loss, and human suffering caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Few would draw this conclusion from the coverage in the nation’s newspapers and cable news, which for the past two weeks seemed obsessed with the words “radiation,’’ “evacuation,’’ and “meltdown.’’

Both the volume and tone of the news coverage of Fukushima were out of proportion to the significance of the broader events across Japan. Reporters might try to justify the breathless nature of the stories citing uncertainty or the lack of information provided by authorities. However, that same uncertainty could apply to information regarding survivors, supply shortages, or government response to just about any aspect of the disaster.

This was the world’s fifth-largest earthquake in more than 100 years. The death toll will likely exceed 20,000, despite the fact that the country was relatively well prepared and most coastal residents received a tsunami warning. Tragically, several workers died while working to regain control of the six reactors, but thousands upon thousands died in factories, schools, and ports throughout the country’s northern coast.

The US government only contributed to the loss of perspective by recommending evacuation to 50 miles from the plant, even as the Japanese government recommended a 12-mile zone. The difference in risk between the two was insignificant, but the distinction served to confuse the public and unnecessarily call into question the Japanese government’s response.

Perspective was also in short supply within the broader discussion of energy policy. No source of energy is inherently “safe’’: dams break, oil and gas are combustible, and mines collapse. We establish prudent safety precautions for these industries because the benefits they provide save lives and improve our quality of life. But without an honest assessment of the financial and human cost associated with electricity production, we can’t hope to make good policy choices.

Between 2005 and 2009, 146 people died in coal mining accidents in the United States. In China the toll exceeded 20,000. During the same period, the number of fatalities related to civilian nuclear power was zero. This doesn’t mean that coal is bad, simply that accidents happen despite precautions. In the United States, the federal government has called for a “90-day review’’ of nuclear plant safety. Is this because a particular feature of design has been called into question, or simply because a loss of perspective has driven policy makers to make a political display?

And finally, there is perspective to be gained by looking at the enormous human cost of this natural disaster compared with others that we are actually empowered to overcome. In sub-Saharan Africa each year, 800,000 people die from malaria. The pills necessary to save each life cost less than $2. It’s not a sensational story; it isn’t in our backyard; it doesn’t induce fear the way stories of radiation might. It’s no one’s fault, and everyone’s fault. It’s a failure of logistics, government infrastructure, health care systems, and funding.

Ironically, one of the most effective tools to eradicate the mosquitoes that spread malaria has been essentially taken off the table — by the media’s lack of perspective. Forty years ago, DDT was excoriated in sensational headlines, and branded as an environmental killer. Today, despite the fact that in appropriate concentrations DDT can be used both safely and effectively to protect homes and save lives, the UN Environment Program and World Health Organization continue to discourage its use.

When individuals lose perspective, they make poor choices about their personal lives, safety, or finances. When the mass media lose perspective, it’s another matter altogether. We are left with public policy driven by emotion and misperception, which costs us all in terms of time, effort, money, and lives.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.