My First Meltdown: Lessons From Fukushima

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Scene: The date is March 11, 2011. I am in my apartment in Kyoto, Japan, watching my first partial nuclear meltdown 335 miles away in Fukushima. Because the word “melt” suggests a visible and even transition between physical states, I always thought of a meltdown as a fast and fluid event. The experience does not conform to my expectations; it seems to proceed at a lurching pace.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano becomes a regular fixture on our televisions and laptops. Because he, and the Kan administration, are reliant on the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, for information, he can offer little more than reassurances that the situation is under control. These come in stark contrast to the ever more frightening scenes behind him. We watch as problems spread from one part of the facility to another. Hydrogen explosions literally blow the walls off of several of the reactor buildings.

We turn to Twitter and Facebook. In the hours after the earthquake, 177 million tweets are sent and 572,000 new Twitter accounts are created. We discover that radiation levels have reached 8,217 microsieverts per hour near the front gate of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and that anyone in this kind of environment would be exposed to more than three years’ worth of naturally occurring radiation within 60 minutes. We also learn that the government is venting steam laced with cesium and iodine and that iodine exposure can result in thyroid cancer.

We begin to compulsively massage at our thyroid glands and text fellow American expats around Japan.

“We’re definitely getting out of Tokyo and coming to Kyoto,” says my friend, father of a two-year-old toddler.

“I’m definitely going home to New York,” says my neighbor. He’s on a flight 12 hours later. We make fun of him for overreacting. Within the day, we, too, begin to contemplate leaving the country. A family of three nuclear refugees, as they’ve come to be called, has taken up temporary residence in my bedroom. E-mails from family back home are hysterical in tone. E-mails from Japanese friends within the country politely suggest that the situation has been blown out of proportion.

In the days that follow, my wife and I begin to pursue contrasting avenues of research. I gravitate toward articles and sources that confirm the narrative to which I have already subscribed, that the mainstream Western media is dramatizing the situation at the power plant. I am encouraged and impressed by the enterprising young people in Tokyo who have taken it upon themselves to monitor the radiation from their homes and offices and tweet the results- which show that radiation levels are not dangerous.

“In a worst-case scenario, the alpha radiation would be contained to a relatively small area. The main threat is to the food supply and only the food from that prefecture,” I tell my wife.

“The USS Ronald Reagan was picking up radiation on deck; and it was a hundred miles offshore. They moved the entire fleet,” she says, emphasizing “fleet” as though this nuance in the story indicates that a truly remarkable naval maneuver has occurred.

My wife begins to follow a different line of research. She seizes on the movements taking place behind the official statements, the diplomatic breakdown between the U.S. and Japanese governments over the proposed size of the evacuation zone. Her faith in the Kan administration has completely evaporated. But she is not panicked. She is calm, collected, and open-eyed as she weighs various bits of information against the credibility of their respective sources.

In the days that follow, we learn that the French government has advised its citizens to evacuate Tokyo. The U.K. government chief scientist states that the French response is “not based on science.”

The discussion within our tiny apartment turns to the future. The evacuation area is steadily swelling, first to 10 then to 20 kilometers. The government continues to proclaim that radiation levels in Tokyo and beyond are not dangerous. Officials also anticipate that they may have to vent more steam. We know that we are probably safe where we are. But the amount of radiation detectable at the mouth of the plant seems to be rising roughly in tandem with the price of airfare out of Japan. Finally, in a calm and careful manner, like so many others, we purchase tickets to leave the country.

The Fallout from Bad Communication

The week of the March 2011 earthquake saw a massive exodus of foreigners from Japan, a 16% drop in the Nikkei 225 stock market index (which has partially bounced back), and runs on bottled water and toilet paper in Tokyo. Could the government have handled the situation better? Tragedies like a tsunami can’t be prevented. Other disasters, like the Kan administration’s public relations response to the breakdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, offer lessons for the future.

Upon my return to the United States, I contacted crisis communications expert Peter Sandman. When disasters strike, he says, most people have three questions for the government man or woman at the podium: What happened? What do you expect to happen? and What are you worried might happen?

“By far the biggest crisis communication error of the Japanese government [was] failure to answer the second and third questions satisfactorily: i.e., its failure to forewarn people about tomorrow’s and next week’s probable headlines, and its failure to guide people’s fears about worst-case scenarios,” says Sandman.

In the midst of the unfolding disaster, the Kan administration refused to speculate publicly about how bad the situation could get. The result was the bizarre scene I saw on my television: Yukio Edano, in his bright blue jumpsuit, issuing public reassurances and hastily revising them as the nuclear power plant exploded behind him. In some parts of the country, these press conferences were followed by public-service announcements calmly advising people to stay indoors, wear masks to limit exposure to radiation, and avoid tap water. Competing messages like these led rational people like my wife and me to conclude that the Kan administration and Tokyo Electric Power weren’t giving us the full story.

Sandman says that the Japanese government “failed to predict that there would probably be increasing radiation levels in local milk, vegetables, and seawater; that Tokyo’s drinking water would probably see a radiation spike as well; that plutonium would probably be found in the soil near the damaged plants; that the evidence of core melt would probably keep getting stronger… etc. After each of these events occurred, the government [said] they were predictable and not all that alarming. But it failed to predict them.”

This vicious cycle-public official downplays situation, situation worsens, repeat-is one that Sandman has seen before, when he served on the congressional investigation into the Three Mile Island nuclear incident. In that instance, the operating utility, Metropolitan Edison, quickly worked to paint an optimistic but not inaccurate portrait of what was going on inside the plant. When the picture worsened, the public was left to speculate that Metropolitan Edison was either lying about the risks or unaware of what they were.

Sandman’s first piece of advice to any government or company spokesman tasked with addressing the public during a crisis is, in a word, speculate. Do it gloomily, alarmingly, but above all else, do it loudly. He suspects that in the case of Fukushima, like Three Mile Island, the people in control only communicated what they knew for certain. Because they kept their worst fears private people were left to invent their own worst-case scenarios.

“Talking about what’s likely and what’s possible is necessarily speculative. Some commentators and even some crisis communication professionals have argued that authorities shouldn’t speculate in a crisis. This is incredibly bad advice,” says Sandman.

If my wife and I and the many other people who fled the country had known the government’s worst case scenario, we likely would not have left. But there’s another lesson to be learned from the Fukushima disaster, evinced by the many who stayed to volunteer in the areas most affected by the tsunami: Trust your people not to panic. They’re probably more steady than you think.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2011


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