The word 'Fukushima' has entered the English language as a synonym for massive disaster. The public's perception of the accident has been moulded unconsciously by months of fearful media exposure and this perception bears little resemblance to the rather more bland reality.
An example of this image of catastrophe can be found on top of the current talk page behind the Fukushima wikipedia article. An editor named Chrisrus wrote:
"Readers want to know...
how many people died as a result of not the earthquake or tsunami, but as a result of the nuclear meltdown radiation per se. If you use the table of contents you can't find this information easily. Just if you hit "casualties" it jumps you to the fact that a couple of workers who were directly right there have died. That can't be all! If we don't or can't know, please say so and explain, and please make it easier to find. I don't need all this information, I just want to know how many people died because of all of these meltdowns, and how many were emergency workers who went right into it to try and fix the problem and how many were citizens who lived downwind or in the surrounding area. We know that the earthquake and tsunami killed tons of people, but as this reads it seems like nuclear meltdowns are only dangerous to you if you're a first responder or some such who jumps right into it with a fire hose or some such. Great heroes, don't get me wrong, but nuclear meltdowns are supposed to kill everyone in the surrounding area pretty quickly and then many many others over the course of time who were farther away and this article leaves one with the impression that if there's an earthquake/tsunami big enough to cause a meltdown, the meltdown is the least of your problems."
This statement is the saddest thing I have read since March 11. This person came into the wikipedia page expecting to read about thousands of people dead and dying from radiation; and when he couldn't find those numbers he assumed it was an editing problem and went to the talk page to complain. Yet he writes lucidly; he may be well-educated, possibly an experienced wikipedia editor. The tragedy is not that his pre-conceived ideas of the accident were so different from the reality; the tragedy is how widespread these ideas probably are.
Some short answers to his pleas:
"I just want to know how many people died because of all these meltdowns." Nobody
"as this reads it seems like meltdowns are only dangerous to you if you're a first responder or some such who jumps right into it..." Yep, that just about sums it up
"nuclear meltdowns are supposed to kill everyone in the area pretty quickly" Are they?
"this article leaves one with the impression that if there's an earthquake/tsunami big enough to cause a meltdown, the meltdown is the least of your worries" Um, yes.
Unfortunately this thing has taken on a life of its own and is probably not correctable. Decades from now Fukushima will be an example of why nuclear power is a bad idea. It should be an example of why nuclear power is a good idea. Public opinion has been permanently altered; governments dare not go against the feeling of the electorate and when making energy decisions may take fear of radiation into account more than the science. Even now well-meaning family members in Australia enquire after my well-being and advise me not to eat the fish; they even express reservations about seafood in Australia...
It becomes difficult to imagine any news that will balance out the negativity; and from now every cancer case in Japan will be blamed by a large section of the public on the reactor accident. Every story of unnecessary decontamination will become part of the greater 'nuclear crisis', and every minor bumble by TEPCO or the Japanese governement will become evidence of the vast conspiracy of governments and nuclear power companies hell-bent on poisoning all of us and keeping it secret at the same time.
Meanwhile coal, oil and gas power station continue to pour massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, simuntaneously spewing out toxic materials out of designed leaks call smokestacks even under normal circumstances. And when accidents happen to those power stations, well, we don't hear about it for very long.
Check out this video of an oil refinery that burned for 12 days non-stop in Chiba prefecture after the quake. Never heard of it? You're not the only one. We don't hear much in the media these days about the hazardous materials released into the atmosphere from that accident.