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Posts Tagged ‘Fukushima’

Fukushima Fear-Mongering

If there’s one group in America that lives by Rahm Emanuel’s axiom that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it’s the media.

With the nuclear plant accident at Fukushima, the media have two choices: They can use it as an event to teach readers about radiation and risk, or they could use it to drum up readership.  They largely see the two as incompatible, so with some exceptions, they have gone with the latter, publicizing every finding of trace radiation and using terms like “hellish” when referring to the Fukushima site.

When you have the facts – something even more powerful than nuclear fuel – the behavior of the media is regrettable.  Fortunately, some outlets have provided us with good facts. We quoted an LA Times piece earlier about radiation, risk and fear, and the Washington Post ran an excellent story about how NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, has been the voice of calm through the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima incident.

Not so the Post itself, which has a lead story today, Chernobyl, a warning for Japan. In stark contrast, an excellent article in Reason, Nuclear News Meltdown, gives us reason to question the basis of most mainstream media coverage of Chernobyl or any accident at a nuclear plant.  It tells us:

In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.

By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: “Anything that can melt down possibly will.”)

Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the “Who’s Who” of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.

Can you conclude from this that the media were profoundly biased in their selection of sources?  Maybe.  More likely, the evidence would show that the well-oiled public relations machines run by anti-nuclear organizations were much more adept than the nuclear science community was at getting sources in front of the media, and the media was profoundly lazy and unprofessional in not aggressively seeking out alternate views. The evident bias in the media coverage may not have been so much in the news coverage itself, but in the selection of sources they used to relay the story.  There’s a lesson in there for public relations and public affairs professionals: Don’t expect the media to come to you, no matter how expert you may be … especially if you’re working for someone other than environmentalists, liberal activists, trial attorneys or Democrats.

Of course, some reporters are more obviously biased, like those who write the OC Watchdog column and blog at the Register.  They have posted a total of nine negative stories on nuclear power since Japan’s earthquake, quoting suspect sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists and legislators promoting anti-nuclear bills. But when your next performance review hinges on the number of comments your posts have received, as is the case at the Register, wouldn’t you opt for sensationalism, too?

The difference between being biased in selection of sources and just being biased is subtle and the end result is identical – a populace that can’t be counted on to make the right decisions because they’ve been shielded from relevant information and swayed by the most sensational of all journalists – the headline writers.  As America faces the critical issue of how we will generate the energy we need, the media has done yet another disservice to rational thought, and rational thought is the linchpin of a successful democracy.

Perspective, Please!

The media’s breathless coverage of the Fukushima nuclear accident continues with a stream of reports about the radiation in the wind over New York, in the spinach in Japan, in your hair, on your car, over your head and under your feet. It’s all too much.  Literally.


A friend sent me this chart today.  Check out the expandable, more readable version here.  The block that’s smack dab in the middle of the box with blue blocks in it is the average daily dose of someone living by the Fukushima plant after the accident. The big blue block across the bottom is the radiation you’d get from one flight from New  York to LA.

The second tiny green box in the green blocks is the sum total of all the blue boxes – it’s three green squares.  The next largest green box is what you’d get in one year of living in a stone, brick or concrete house – four boxes.  The big green block is the maximum yearly dose allowed for U.S. radiation users.

Put all the green boxes into the top orange box. The big orange block is a fatal dose.  How’s that for perspective?

Most of the media is ignoring this kind of stuff since it doesn’t exactly make for bold headlines, but the  LA Times is to be commended for a piece by reporter Melissa Healy  it ran Sunday called, “From Japan’s damaged nuclear complex: radiation and fear.”  Here’s the lead:

In the wake of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the powerful tsunami that followed, the stricken nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant released not one but two powerful and invisible forces: radiation and fear of radiation.

Both can spread quickly, and with insidious stealth. They permeate walls, make no distinction between rich and poor, and are particularly hard on children.

And elevated levels of either can have long-term health consequences.

Read the whole piece. It’s short and well worth it.  Stress, like radiation, has distinct and proven detrimental effects on health.  Doesn’t the media  have a responsibility, therefore, to report much more accurately about the health risks – not just the radiation levels – associated with the disaster?

PR Meltdown Update: Progress, but More Evidence of Doom

“I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It’s all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren’t playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don’t know who to trust,” said [Tsugumi] Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of the city of Fukushima, 80 miles (50 miles) away from the plant.

Click on image to see Futuba to the northeast of the Fukushima plant, which is marked with an "A."

AP reported that quote this morning, evidencing just how horrible the PR crisis meltdown in the Japan nuclear crisis is. Before the quake, tsunami and radiation evacuation, Hasegawa lived in the town of Futuba, described by AP as “in the shadow of the nuclear plant,” yet the 29-year-0ld mother has not been provided – or does not remember – the information she needs to process the news she is receiving.

Three entities are at fault for this. Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) appears to have not undertaken the community outreach and education it should have, given its responsibility as a corporate citizen to the people near its many nuclear plants.  The second is the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which either didn’t require community education or didn’t enforce the regulations. The third is the media, which apparently is not putting sufficient perspective and explanation into their reports.

In many cases, Hasegawa herself may have been the cause of the communication breakdown.  She may have been the target of meaningful communications, but like so many do, failed to tune in.  This is highly unlikely because Japanese schools, community structures and emergency drill techniques are all top-notch, and further, the quote indicates this has been an institutional failure, not an individual one. It is from Kazuma Yokota, a government nuclear safety official, who was commenting on the failure to quickly respond to the emergency by distributing potassium iodine, which protects from radioactive iodine, to the surrounding communities:

“We should have made this decision and announced it sooner. It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”

And why not? The standard excuse is that no one conceived of a situation this awful, but after Chernobyl, nuclear plant operators should have planned for a serious meltdown and radiation release scenario, whether they thought it would happen at their plant or not.  Has your  neighborhood nuclear reactor operator performed any better?

The AP article also has two other quotes worth noting as we evaluate the crisis communications program the Japanese are struggling, largely unsuccessfully, to implement.  The first is from Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama:

“We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control.”

The second is from another government official, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano:

“Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns.  At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

At this point in the crisis, systems should be in place to ensure that a deputy secretary and a chief secretary of the same government are on the same page, but they’re not.  Edano, who said the second quote, may not be as reassuring, but at this point, being believable is much more important than being reassuring, so his message will be more effective than Fukuyama’s.

PR Meltdown: Bad Reputations Hamper Nuke Response

My experience in Japan – 12 years of it – colors my reaction to the triple tragedy that is unfolding in the country I love and called home for so long.  The earthquake itself was much stronger than any I felt while there, and I went through ones strong enough to empty theaters and drop plaster from ceilings.  I know the area most impacted and have met its industrious and warm people.  It’s disconcerting to think that I once stayed in a pretty family inn in a seaside fishing village that probably now has been washed out to sea.

But it is the third crisis, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor, that has the most potential for tragedy – and also represents by far the largest public relations melt down of all Japan has gone through.  (Note: I use “Dai-Ichi” instead of “daiichi” throughout because it means “No. 1,” and is two words.)

The Japan I knew when growing up was one where the government and the people were in close harmony, and business was mostly trusted.  Certainly, there were opposition parties and big-time political battles and scandals, but the 38-year successful run of the Liberal Democratic Party (which is conservative, despite its name), from 1955 through 1993, indicates a basic trust between the people and government. As for business, there were scandals including particularly damaging environmental ones, but all in all, the Japanese liked the economic miracle brought on by a business community that was in sync and supported by government.

How badly that’s broken down is evident in the wake of Fukushima.

Neither Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the plant, or the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which regulates it, has been able to win the trust of the people or the media following the accident.  There are lessons in what they’re going through that public relations professionals and government agencies can learn from.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win

Most obviously, Fukushima Dai-Ichi reminds us there are some crises that simply are not going to be handled well.  These are the cases where spokespeople are powerless to provide timely and accurate updates because no one has it.  In this case, no one really knows what’s going on in the plant because of the complex chemistry of nuclear reactions gone awry, just as no one knows what’s going to happen next because there are so many variables in play, from the success or failure of current initiatives to the way the wind will blow.

Tepco execs perform the mandatory apology bow

The cardinal rule of crisis communications is to not say anything until  you’re sure you have accurate information in-hand.  How can any public information officer hope to do this with any level of frequency and consistency in a situation like a nuclear plant meltdown as challenging as this one?  So, as far as the spokespeople go, we should all cut them some slack and hope their professional lives get better soon.

Radioactive Reputations

But even if they could get accurate information in a timely manner, it’s likely the spokespeople for this disaster would still be having a terrible time gaining credibility because both Tepco and NISA went into the crisis with their reputations seriously compromised. The performance of other Japanese nuclear plant operators also added to their problems.  Here’s a run-down of recent scandals:

  • In 2007, an earthquake caused heavy damage to Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.  The company said there had been no release of radiation, but later admitted there was a release, including radioactive water spilling into the Sea of Japan.
  • Tepco has ordered in 2006 to review all its safety records after it was revealed that the company  had been falsifying records of the temperature of plant coolants since at least 1985.
  • In 2002, a number of senior Tepco executive resigned in disgrace after NISA disclosed (far too late in many people’s estimation) that the company had covered up at least 29 cases of cracks and other damage to reactors.  Two Fukushima reactors were included in the scandal.  In 2003, the implications of this case impacted everyone on Japan’s power grid as Tepco was forced to shut down all of its reactors for safety inspections.
  • In 1999, Japan Atomic Power was criticized when it took 14 hours to shut down the Tsurugura plant in northern Japan after a cooling water leak.  Later it was learned the level of radiation in this accident was several times higher than originally announced.
  • In 1995, there were allegations of cover-up, falsification of reports, and editing of videotapes following a fire at the Monju reactor in central Japan. [Source for bullets here and here.]

Incidents like these weaken not only the credibility of Japan’s nuclear plant operators, but also the regulators at NISA who are supposed to be keeping a watchful eye over the industry.  Because of them, Japan’s nuclear industry and its regulators are going to suffer a long-term, highly damaging meltdown of the public’s trust in them.  The result is likely to be very painful and perhaps even fatal for nuclear power in Japan.  If there’s a way to buy stock in Chinese coal mining, you might want to consider doing so now because Japan may be looking for an alternative to nuclear power soon.

Tired But True

It’s a lesson that’s been around for as long as the spoken word:  There is a heavy cost associated with trying to cover things up.  It has never been more true than now – after all, it took me less than a minute to find the documentation cited above, so how does anyone think they can successfully pull the wool over the public’s eyes?  Even American presidents, the most powerful and protected people on the planet, have learned this hard lesson over and over again, from Grant with the Teapot Dome scandal to Clinton with the blue dress.

For any controversial industry (and really, what industry isn’t controversial at some level?), the decision to cover up is particularly foolish. The Japanese nuclear plant operators should have realized they would not succeed, and should have understood that one day – today – the consequences of their deceit would be very bad indeed. The regulators, if not complicit in the cover-up, should have realized that their oversight systems weren’t working and should have improved them.

Their only option now is the truth, nothing but the truth, and the whole truth, 24/7, even if it means career suicide.  They need to do something comparable to what British Petroleum did when it live-streamed the video images of crude gushing from the broken pipe at Deep Horizon.  The public demands and deserves real-time radiation readings and status reports.  Longer term, the companies need to open all the other plants to similar levels of scrutiny and act quickly, decisively and publicly if there’s any doubt that something might be amiss.

An industry with a good reputation could have weathered this crisis because the people and the press would have a great deal of forgiveness, given the unprecedented severity of the earthquake and tsunami.  Tepco won’t get any forgiveness, however, because it hasn’t t earned it – and your company or organization won’t either if you’re playing Tepco’s game.