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How Bad Can It Get in Japan?

An official in a full radiation protection suit scans an evacuated elderly woman with a geiger counter to check radiation levels in Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture.
AFP | Getty Images
An official in a full radiation protection suit scans an evacuated elderly woman with a geiger counter to check radiation levels in Koriyama city in Fukushima prefecture.

Ever since the nuclear plants began deteriorating in Japan, there's been no shortage of coverage in the media. But it's been very hard to find anything on the bottom line: how bad could this get? If everything goes wrong, if we get multiple meltdowns, what happens? What's the worse case scenario?

Clive Cook puts it nicely in the Atlantic:

Coverage of the nuclear emergency is probably as informative as it can be under the circumstances—but still I find it frustrating. Purportedly analytical accounts are muddled; obvious questions are left unresolved or unaddressed; there are inconsistencies all over the place. Much of this is unavoidable, I know, but the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don't know or have failed to understand.

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, "What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites? Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong: what then?" I still don't know the answer. In what I have read so far—dozens of articles—nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.

I suspect that there's been a paternalism operating here. Members of the media feel a duty to be "responsible" and not cause a panic by clearly explaining the worst case scenario. It stems from a non-entirely misplaced contempt for the public. If told how bad things could get, many people will assume that's how bad things will get. But is protecting the public from its own worst instincts the job of the press? Does it matter if that "protection" consists of denying the public information that could be useful if things get really bad?

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