As I made my way out of downtown D.C. after Tuesday’s 5.8-magnitutde earthquake, I heard on the radio that the North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa County Virginia had lost power and was forced to shut down. It was an alarming report, given that it was a loss of power that ultimately caused the Fukushima meltdown five months ago.
By the time I got home, however, any fears of a Three Mile Island repeat had been allayed.
Hours after the quake, I heard plant operators, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials, and local emergency management personnel provide detailed descriptions of how the plant automatically shut down after the first tremors; how it was operating on emergency power and the reactors had been safely deactivated; how no radioactive material had been released; and how “the plants are designed for this kind of event.”
It was just the sort of credible reassurance that transformed the episode into nothing more than a footnote in an otherwise eventful day. The speed and accuracy with which officials provided information helped cement the perception that the situation was under control.
It was risk communications at its best, practiced when it was needed most, given the fear and anxiety that continues to impact the nuclear industry in Fukushima’s wake.
Last week, an article in The Wall Street Journal told the story of Iitate, a small Japanese village just 17 miles northwest of the Fukushima plant. Soon after the meltdown, Japanese officials apparently knew that high levels of radiation had made their way to Iitate–which, at the time, rested outside the evacuation zone.
The six thousand people living there were likely at risk. Still, it took the Japanese government a week to provide any indication that Iitate had become a nuclear “hot spot” and a month for it to decide that the village was too dangerous to inhabit. By then, so much time had passed that many of those living in Iitate simply didn’t take the warnings seriously. Today, its residents–and thousands of others across central Japan–continue to live in a state of confusion as to where it is safe to live, what foods are safe to eat, and how best to decontaminate affected areas.
The story isn’t unlike many that are playing out across the region in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in a generation. Absent rapid, clear, concise, and credible communications from Japanese officials, speculation and skepticism are ruling the day. The only thing that Japanese citizens seem sure of now is that their government cannot be trusted to provide them with the directives and information that can keep them safe.
There is no question that Japanese officials were put in a situation far more difficult than that created by Tuesday’s quake. The science surrounding radiation’s impacts on human health remains murky at best. It was difficult to assess how much radiation had reached certain areas and even what levels of contamination should have triggered a local evacuation. At the same time, the government understandably did not want to create a panic or paint the situation as more dire than it was, given Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear energy.
But these elements led to countless contradictory statements and, eventually, allegations that the government was holding back vital information. After that, it wasn’t long before the Japanese government’s credibility on the issue declined and the Japanese people, global media, and even members of the Japanese Parliament began turning to other, more trusted sources of information. One such source was 29-year-old Kenta Sato, an Iitate resident who amassed more than 5,700 followers on Twitter with posts such as “Since the government won’t issue an evacuation order despite constantly high levels of radiation, I have to keep working in a place where radiation comes falling down all day long. Please help!”
Where the North Anna operators, the NRC, and the local responders got it right yesterday–and where Japanese officials have failed time and again–is in understanding that uncertainty is the last thing you want when seeking to calm an anxious audience. Because risk is perceived more than it is understood, eliminating the fear of the unknown is absolutely essential.
Imperiled populations need to hear one of two things when they look to those they trust to defuse a crisis; either credible reassurances that the situation has been contained, or definitive information as to the scope of the problem and what is being done to solve it. In cases where neither can be immediately provided, ensuring that people know what they can do to protect themselves while the problem is assessed becomes Job One.
Even in situations where risk is relatively benign–as was the case Tuesday–such an approach is the advisable course of action. Risk that is mysterious, unclear, and newly-apprehended is always perceived to be worse than it really is; so when you attempt to downplay risk or deny that it exists at all, you ultimately feed the panic you were seeking to quell in the first place.
Many have likely already forgotten the brief nuclear concerns that accompanied Tuesday’s travails–but when the plant safety debate heats up again (as it surely will at points in the coming months and years), everyone will remember that the industry and its regulators safely ushered us through the worst earthquake this region has seen in more than a century. In risk communications, you can’t ask for anything more.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference, and writes for Bulletproofblog. Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image: Flickr user James River Association]