Meltdown: the anatomy of a front-page story

Sometimes a single news story overwhelms all others – as in this week's unfurling crisis in Japan. But attempting to disentangle what actually happened is an alarming exercise.

Friday 11 March
What happened: 5.46am – a giant tsunami knocks out power at Fukushima nuclear plant. 8.30pm – Engineers are forced to vent steam, which releases radioactive material.

What we were told: 10.30am – Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan declares a nuclear emergency but insists no radiation has been released. 7.30pm -- A Government spokesman says: 'It's possible that radioactive material could leak but…the wind blowing towards the sea will be considerable'. 8.30pm – The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant, says there is no danger.

Saturday 12 March
What happened: 7.37am – an explosion bursts through Reactor 1. During the day – the cooling system at a second reactor fails.

What we were told: 1.52am – Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says: 'We are not in a situation in which residents face health damage'. 9.37am – Official statement saying risk of contamination remains small. TEPCO reports 'a big sound and white smoke'. 11.00am – Mr Edano says that while the concrete outer shell of Reactor 1 is damaged, the steel core remains intact. 12.00 midday – Official statement says radiation levels are falling.

Sunday 13 March
What happened: 4.24am – radioactive meltdowns in two reactors. 5.00pm – 200,000 people evacuated from around nuclear plant. 11.00pm – 22 people confirmed with radiation contamination

What we were told: 12.43am – Mr Edano says radiation is low enough not to affect people's health.

Monday 14 March
What happened: 2.00am – Reactor 3 explodes. 4.00am – 190 people are confirmed with radiation exposure. 3.00pm – Fuel rods are melting in three reactors. 11.00pm – A third explosion.

What we were told: 8.30am – Mr Edano says that radiation remains low and the reactor containers are sound.

Tuesday 15 March
What happened: 2.30am – A fourth reactor is on fire releasing radiation. 8.00am Temperature is rising at Reactors 5 and 6.

What we were told: 6.00am – Mr Edano says radiation readings can 'potentially affect health – there is no mistake about that'.

Wednesday 16 March
What happened: US nuclear commission says fuel storage pool in Reactor 3 has no water in it. 4.55pm – Radiation has reached highest levels yet at Reactor 3.

What we were told: 6.00pm – Government statement says radiation levels should not cause an immediate health risk.

Thursday 17 March
What happened: 8.38am – helicopters start dropping water on the overheating reactors.

What we were told: 11.24am – TECPO says 'the situation is not so good'. 5.37pm – Official statement says three of the reactors are now 'relatively stable'.

You Decide

  1. How would you feel if you lived close to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant? Would you trust the government?
  2. Governments sometimes feel they have to withhold the truth to protect citizens. Is that ever the right thing to do?


  1. Think of a historical or imaginary disaster and then make an official statement about it. You're not allowed to lie, but you want to cause the least possible alarm.
  2. Do some research into the Fukushima crisis and decide for yourself: is this a new Chernobyl?

Some People Say...

“Governments lie to their people to keep them safe.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So how bad is the situation really?
It's bad – there's a very real danger of a severe radiation leak. But it's hard to be clear about the dangers because there are so many different views about what's happening.
There are?
t one extreme, there are those who say that the dangers are being blown out of proportion by the media. At the other extreme, there are people who accuse Japan of a cover-up, and warn that this could be worse than Chernobyl.
Remind me about Chernobyl again?
The Chernobyl Disaster was a terrible nuclear accident in the former USSR. Thousands are said to have died as a result. But the disaster is also known for the secretive and dishonest response of the Soviet government.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.