"Nothing to see here folks"

I'm blatantly, um, borrowing the "Nothing to see here folks" headline from my friend and fellow Philadelphia blogger Atrios because there's simply no way other way to put it -- we've become pretty lacksadaisical these last few days about what is shaping up as a major environmental catastrophe in Japan:

Experts estimate that about seven tons an hour of radioactive water is escaping the pit. Safety officials have said that the water, which appears to be coming from the damaged No. 2 reactor, contains one million becquerels per liter of iodine 131, or about 10,000 times the levels normally found in water at a nuclear plant.

This raises a lot of concerns, such as:

Officials are watching levels of iodine-131 in seawater because although it has a half-life of eight days, meaning it is half as radioactive after that time, the substance builds up in seaweed, a common food in the Japanese diet. If consumed, radioactive iodine collects in the thyroid and can cause cancer.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said iodine-131 in seawater would "soon be of no concern" presuming there are no further discharges of contaminated water from the power station into the sea.

The IAEA added that Japanese authorities have released the first analyses of fish, caught at the port of Choshi, in Chiba prefecture south of Fukushima, which found one of five to be contaminated with a detectable level of caesium-137, a far more persistent radioactive substance, though at a concentration that was far below safety limits for consumption.

The potential consequences are not just environmental but economic. Even if testing shows that seaweed, fish and other seafood is safe to eat, the news of leaking radioactivity on this scale could cause a crisis of consumer confidence that could wipe out Japan's fishing industry anyway.

The weird thing is this: Remember two weeks ago? The U.S. cable networks were covering the heck out of this story around the clock, making rock stars out of nuclear-safety experts from MIT or Princeton. Then came Libya, or the Charlie Sheen tour, or God knows what else, and now Japan is a back-of-the-hour story, even though it seems as if some of the worst case scenarios those experts described are actually now happening. It just goes to prove that what passes for news in America has very little correlation with what's actually important, especially when an attention span of longer than 15 minutes is called for.

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