"Significant Breaking Worse"
The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis as a Moral Panic
Author: Kyle Cleveland
The trifecta of disasters in Japan that unfolded on 11 March 2011 strains credibility: a 9.0-level earthquake (the largest ever recorded in Japan), a thousand- year tsunami that devastated a 300-kilometer stretch of coastline in northeastern Japan, and three nuclear reactors in meltdown, exposing significant portions of Japan to potentially dangerous levels of radiation. In the aftermath of these unprecedented disasters, the meaning and significance of this disaster have evolved. As Japanese government authorities and the general public alike have come to understand the nuclear disaster in more nuanced terms, retrospective evaluations now cast this crisis in its historical context and are coming to calibrate the level of significance in more consistent terms than was the case in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. This article analyzes how media and government authorities assessed the Fukushima nuclear disaster from its onset and considers how cultural frames of reference came into play, leading to selective perceptions about the nature of the accident and its presumed effects. The author discusses the nuclear disaster as a "moral panic," as the media constructed a narrative arch that amplified perceptions of risk in often melodramatic terms, filtering information that shaped public perception and influenced the action of decision-making elites. In addition to discussing how the nuclear disaster affected Japanese domestic politics, the article addresses the impact of the nuclear disaster on international alliances and its implications for the nuclear industry.