Managing Public Perceptions of Fukushima: First Emergency Response of the Nuclear Complex

Dr. Robert Jacobs

Dr. Robert Jacobs,

Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University

Previous articles by Prof Jacobs on

Fukushima Victimization 2.0 Hibakusha: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Beyond

After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world became aware that exposure to radiation could cause sickness and death. However, the United States government was able to limit this awareness through the careful managing of public perceptions. It was the prompt burst of gamma radiation from the detonation of a nuclear weapon that caused the radiation sickness among the hibakusha, the survivors of the nuclear attacks claimed US experts. This prompt burst lasted only seconds following the moment of detonation. The fact that people continued to live in Hiroshima & Nagasaki after the attacks seemed to reinforce this belief. The truth is that even before these attacks, after the Trinity Test in July 1945 Manhattan Project employees had traced the deposit of downwind radioactive fallout in the area surrounding the test site. Cardboard boxes made from strawboard from a field over 1,000 miles away in Illinois that had been contaminated with fallout from the Trinity Test had blurred film later packed in the boxes by the Eastman Kodak company.1

Rongelapese (Marshall Islands) child exposed to radiation from the Bravo Test

The US managed to keep awareness of downwind fallout relatively secret for almost ten years. That ended with the Bravo Test at Bikini Atoll in 1954. Bravo tested the first deliverable H-bomb and produced such an immense amount of downwind radioactive fallout that its presence could not be managed or denied.2 That doesn’t mean the US did not work feverishly to both manage and deny awareness of fallout. The Bravo cloud engulfed hundreds of fishing boats located outside of the protective exclusionary zone, but one boat in particular, the Lucky Dragon #5 (the Daigo Fukuryu Maru) would be so contaminated that it became impossible for the US to control perceptions of what had happened to the boat and crew. Thirteen days after the Bravo test the boat pulled into port in Yaizu, Japan with the entire crew suffering from radiation sickness, one of whom would die weeks later from his exposure. Until that day the US had succeeded in keeping a very tight lid on awareness of the radiation disaster, even though whole populations of downwind atolls in the Marshall Islands had all been exposed and evacuated (many military personnel were also exposed). The simple fact of the contaminated and sick crew of the Lucky Dragon brought awareness of what had happened in the Marshall Islands to the world’s attention.

Responding immediately, and strictly focused on containing information and awareness, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) feverishly denied the obvious. AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss first claimed that the crew was sick because of a “chemical” reaction of undersea coral in the explosion and not exposure to radioactivity. As the wonderful historian of worldwide antinuclear movements Lawrence Wittner reports:

The chair of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, publicly declared that the Marshall Islanders were “well and happy.”  The Japanese fishermen, he conceded, had experienced a few minor problems; but, in any case, he stated falsely, they “must have been well within the danger area.”  Privately, he was more caustic. The Lucky Dragon, he told the White House press secretary, was really a “Red spy outfit,” a component of a “Russian espionage system.”  At the request of Strauss, the CIA investigated this possibility and categorically denied it. Nonetheless, Strauss continued to maintain that the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon ‘was no accident,’ for the captain of the vessel must have been “in the employ of the Russians.”  He also told authors to ignore the contention of the “propagandists” that a crew member of the vessel had died of radiation exposure.3

Such efforts to control public perception had worked well in the past, but the actual sickness of the Lucky Dragon crew and the real death of its chief radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama proved more than Strauss’ lies could obscure. However, as before this radiation tragedy, the modus operandi of those working with both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants has been to follow this game plan every time that an exposure of civilians to radioactivity has occurred. The last two years since the nuclear disaster Fukushima Daiichi has been a stunning example of this strategy in operation.

Fukushima Daiichi #1 began what would become a full meltdown in the first hour after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Units #2 and #3 would begin their meltdowns within sixteen hours. All three were to fully melt within a few days of the disaster. For those who understood nuclear power plants this was obvious and undeniable by the third or fourth day. Yet TEPCO, and the government of Japan (GOJ) would claim that there were no meltdowns for almost three months. They issued statements that they believed “two inches” or “four inches” of the fuel rods “may” have melted. These were lies; fully self-conscious lies. These lies were assumed to be “necessary” to protect the public. Accurate information about the status of the plants, and the presence and direction of radioactive plumes spewing from the plants in a series of dramatic explosions, were not considered “necessary” to protect the public. The public was to be managed, even when the nuclear power plants themselves no longer could be managed.

The public was being “protected” from the truth because it was assumed that the truth would make them panic, and this was deemed far more dangerous than exposure to radioactivity. Nuclear power plant accidents, and leaks of radiation at production plants and mills that feed into the nuclear power and nuclear weapon complexes, are always accompanied by the controlled misinforming of the public, a herding if you will, of the public into the desired response. This response can be characterized by the term “obedience” to whatever beliefs the authorities find most desirable. While internalizing alpha-emitting radionuclides may sew disease inside of the bodies of the people near to the accident, this danger is ignored by authorities who instead focus on the successful internalizing of the desired beliefs and narratives of the corporations and governmental bodies in charge.

Crew member of the Lucky Dragon

Crew member of the Lucky Dragon

In the case of the repeated lies by TEPCO and the GOJ about there having been meltdowns, the strategy was clear. For two weeks the attention of the world was focused on the worsening nuclear crisis in Japan. During that time of supremely heightened attention they managed to keep the word “meltdown” off of the front pages of the world’s newspapers. “No meltdowns” they lied. When they finally admitted that there had been three full meltdowns—almost three months later—the headlines of the articles reporting this were printed on page 14, or page 20, not on page 1. This was a public relations success for TEPCO and the GOJ. It was seen as supporting the value of Japanese goods and investment in Japan. Clearly the goal of protecting property and of managing perceptions was prioritized above the goal of telling people the truth or of better protecting their health.

In July of 2012 video of teleconferences held in the early days of the crisis were released by TEPCO under public pressure. A report from the Yomiuri Shimbun (translated by the EX-SKF blog) shows this mechanism in operation:

When [experts] were pointing to the possible hydrogen explosion of Reactor 3 [i.e. before Reactor 3 exploded], then-Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata is heard on the phone with TEPCO’s senior management, “It is a judgement call whether it is OK to disturb citizens. If I’m asked about it (possibility of hydrogen explosion) in the next press conference, I will deny it, and say it is not possible.”4

Disturbing citizens with information was not desirable even while some of those citizens were being disturbed by exposure to radioactivity from the plumes of the explosion at Reactor 3 a day later.

When defenders of the nuclear industry make claims such as, “thousands died in the earthquake and tsunami, but no one has died because of the nuclear accident,” they are deceiving you. They know that the deaths that result from these exposures do not happen immediately. The public health affects will unfold over decades. The most severe health effects from Chernobyl have been seen in the children of people who were exposed to radioactivity when they were infants or in the womb. Claims like this are used to manage public perceptions. While they are technically true, they lead to mistaken understandings. Sadako Sasaki, the girl exposed to radioactivity in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima who’s story of trying to fold 1,000 origami cranes before she died is known worldwide did not die from her exposure a year later, she developed leukemia and died ten years later (she was 2 at the time of her exposure).

When the earthquake struck some people living on the coast got into their cars and drove inland. They understood enough about the connection between coastal earthquakes and the threat of tsunamis to know that a clock was ticking. Most of those people lived. They may have had trouble, may have damaged their cars while fleeing or even injured themselves, but fleeing was the key to survival. Everyone living along the coast should have been educated to understand this connection. Everyone should be now. The same is true for nuclear “incidents.” You have to assume when you hear that a nuclear incident has happened that you are not being informed of what has really happened—you are being managed. At best you are being told 5% – 10% of the truth. When you hear of a nuclear incident near to where you live, flee first, decide if that was the right behavior later. If you are wrong you may be embarrassed. If you stay and you are wrong the damage will be worse than embarrassment. So long as we remain in a world in which nuclear power plants are operating near to us, we must learn to respond OURSELVES to the first sign of danger. Like an earthquake when you live near the coast, learn to understand the first signs of impending possible danger and respond. The history of nuclear accidents show that the protection of the public is not the first response of authorities. The protection of property (the investment of the power company and its stock price), and of their own position is the first response of authorities.

Sadako Sasaki

Sadako Sasaki

Nuclear power plants were not built for the public good. They were all built for private profit. Anything that generates waste that remains dangerous for 4,000 generations (Jesus lived 80 generations ago, for contrast) is not being done in the public’s interest. Those who built them have an investment in maintaining their short-term value. We have an interest in the health and wellbeing of our communities. We cannot rely on the nuclear complex, government and industry (and supporting academic and media institutions) to protect us before their investments and their own position. We must rely on each other. We must educate ourselves and protect our communities.


1. “The Active Straw,” Newsweek, November 12, 1945, 50.

2. For a detailed discussion of the emergence of fallout awareness see, Robert Jacobs, “Radiation as Cultural Talisman: Nuclear Weapons Testing and American Popular Culture in the Early Cold War,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 26, No. 1, June 25, 2012:

3. Lawrence S. Wittner, “How Japan Learned About ‘Nuclear Safety,’” History News Network (16 March 2011):

4. “Yomiuri Shinbun on TEPCO’s Video: ‘They Even Blurred the Face of President Shimizu’” EX-SKF (7 August 2012):



    Join discussion: leave a comment