VII. The Fukushima Daiichi Accident and ANS

VII.A. Reaction of ANS to the Fukushima Daiichi Accident

The situation in which ANS found itself at the time of the Fukushima Daiichi accident was a microcosm of what was happening more broadly. The role of ANS as a professional society has always been as an honest information broker. When the Fukushima Daiichi accident happened, significant efforts were made to provide ANS members with current information and analysis, as well as respond to media requests for experts to provide context. However, the Fukushima Daiichi accident was an event of such magnitude and interest that ANS, like other technical societies and organizations, was unprepared for the huge onslaught of demand for information and analysis. The Fukushima Daiichi accident resulted in a serious reappraisal on the part of ANS regarding the organization’s role in crisis communication.

VII.A.1. The Difference Between Risk Communication and Crisis Communication

While often used interchangeably, risk communication and crisis communication address different audiences at different times. A recent issue of the IAEA Bulletin presents risk communication as

vital in the process of achieving a common risk perception. It can be defined as a two-way process of information exchange that includes multiple types of information with multiple purposes. As an important benefit, risk communication has the potential to build public trust.[23]

Meanwhile, crisis communication is used to help governments and companies respond to and recover from a crisis. A key part of crisis communication is using risk communication to build “public trust” by providing experts and reference materials to convey effectively to the public and decision makers the risks of ongoing events or proposed actions. In essence, risk communication is a continual process of public education and awareness. Crisis communication leverages risk communication programs to manage misinformation and speculation that typically occur during a crisis.

VII.A.2. Professional Society Versus Trade Association

The American Nuclear Society is a professional society with almost 12,000 individual members. When the Fukushima Daiichi accident occurred, ANS launched an effort in risk communication, providing informational material on radiation protection and nuclear operations. The ANS effort served an important function as an unbiased source of information, because ANS is not intended to be—and is not viewed by the media as—a promotional organization seeking to preserve the reputation of its members. ANS is not a trade association or an advocacy group.

In contrast, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) is a trade association whose members include all U.S. nuclear utilities and major technology vendors. Almost immediately after news of the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors became public, NEI launched a crisis communication program designed to reassure the public and government officials about the safety of nuclear power in general and specifically the U.S. reactor fleet. The efforts of NEI were focused not on the public, but upon those whom the public expects to provide them with knowledge and leadership. Additionally, NEI had the benefit of prior planning and practice, financial resources, and articulate leaders well trained to handle the blizzard of media questions and demands.

As a society with limited resources, ANS experienced difficulties with its Fukushima risk communication effort. There were problems with the informational materials that ANS had available. Many were largely designed as written materials for an educational setting or briefing and were not well suited for today’s major sources of public information: the Internet and social media. Another barrier facing ANS was a deficit of members skilled in dealing with the media, and of those who were media savvy, many, as would be expected, were restricted by their employers from any public discussions or representations.

VII.A.3. Mobilizing ANS

At ANS headquarters, an ad hoc ANS response group was quickly formed composed of ANS executive officers, staff, members, and consultants to help to support the deluge of demands for information from the media. The group began to exchange information derived from multiple sources, several of which were in Japan; other sources were with governmental organizations involved in monitoring the crisis. This information exchange enabled ANS communications and public affairs personnel to provide the media context pertaining to ongoing events as they were happening, from an organization primarily concerned with scientific and technical accuracy, not advocacy.

VII.A.4. The Turning Point

From the first moments of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the specter of Chernobyl drove much of the conversation and speculation. Lacking real information from the Japanese government, the media quickly focused on Chernobyl as a convenient comparison for predicting fallout deposition and radiation health effects. ANS members, NEI, and other technical and trade organizations made repeated attempts to show this was a flawed comparison. But, no amount of facts or analyses could replace the dramatic images of hydrogen explosions at three out of four units, the scenes of devastation from the earthquake/tsunami, the public confusion by Japanese officials in reporting recovery operations, and rapid-fire media appearances by nuclear opponents who seized the opportunity to advance their agendas.

Furthermore, on March 16, 5 days after the accident, the chairman of the NRC testified before the Congressional Energy and Commerce Committee that the NRC believed that the secondary containment on Unit 4 had been destroyed; that there was no water in the SFP; and that radiation levels were “extremely high,” limiting the ability of responders to take corrective measures. In essence, he informed Congress that the Fukushima NPS was about to become another Chernobyl and recommended an evacuation of 80 km from the NPP site.

But, the chairman’s statement was incorrect and was never substantiated by the NRC. The Japanese government immediately denied the statement, but the effect on public perceptions was done. What little confidence that the international community and media had in reports coming from the Japanese authorities evaporated, and speculation ran rampant. Several other nations followed the NRC advice to have their nationals evacuate to 80 km, and the U.S. military began relocating personnel and offering voluntary evacuations for nearly 20,000 dependents located in surrounding bases far outside of the 80-km designated area. The exodus of foreigners only confirmed in the minds of many that the Fukushima Daiichi accident would become a worse disaster than Chernobyl.

This crisis of public confidence marked a turning point for both the Japanese and ANS. Within the Japanese government, the disarray in managing the nuclear crisis could no longer be excused. An aide to the prime minister told the New York Times, “We found ourselves in a downward spiral, which hurt relations with the United States. We lost credibility with America, and TEPCO lost credibility with us.”[21]

VII.A.5. Questions for ANS

The Fukushima Daiichi accident resulted in ANS asking itself two questions. First, should ANS act as both a resource for credible information and proactively address misinformation? Second, should ANS transition from its traditional role of risk communication to also supporting crisis communication?

ANS leaders debated these questions. They were not fully prepared; they had no established nuclear crisis communications plan; and ANS communications resources, such as social media outlets and media training programs, had been underfunded and underutilized. The TMI-2 and Chernobyl accidents were in the distant past, and the “Nuclear Renaissance” had convinced them that the public had regained confidence in nuclear power. As a society, ANS committed the ultimate error of nuclear safety culture: It had become complacent.

VII.B. Communication and Misinformation

In an age in which international media make news available in real time, failure to communicate risk effectively will inevitably lead to misinformation that can spread like an epidemic. Responding to misinformation and speculation can overcome crisis managers and distract them from addressing issues of real significance. Misinformation can occur because of ignorance, particularly with regard to technical information, and because of jumping to conclusions without substantiating facts. Misinformation can also derive from a simple mistake in translation or presentation or from a cultural issue not transparent to outsiders. Sometimes, individuals and organizations with agendas will use the crisis—and media attention—to advance their views with spurious and speculative information.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident forced ANS members to relearn lessons from the TMI-2 and Chernobyl accidents: Crisis communication and addressing misinformation are an integral part of our responsibilities under the ANS Code of Ethics. As a professional society, we understand that if people act on misinformation, the crisis not only will be exacerbated but also may lead to tragic personal outcomes. A grim legacy of the Chernobyl accident is the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 elective abortions driven by unwarranted hysteria and fear that consumed Europe and states of the former Soviet Union in the months following the accident [24, 25, 26]. The secrecy that surrounded the accident, the response by the Russian and the Ukrainian governments, and the uncoordinated international monitoring response all fueled that fear and gave rise to much of the misinformation that surrounds the accident even today. In the first few days of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, nuclear engineers and scientists feared that many of the mistakes of Chernobyl were about to be repeated.

VII.B.1. Role of ANS in Combating Misinformation

At the start of the crisis, ANS leaders debated the role ANS should play in addressing the continual stream of media misinformation. As a professional society, ANS does not routinely engage in advocacy, leaving that function to trade associations like NEI. Instead, ANS has traditionally focused efforts on risk communication and, when asked, on providing scientific experts to counsel on technical matters. As the events at Fukushima Daiichi unfolded, the credibility of the entire nuclear industry and profession was questioned.

After the March 16 announcement from the NRC, hyperbole and speculation ran rampant as news organizations painted increasingly dire scenarios and predictions of massive impacts to human health and the environment. The news reporters were not responsible for misinformation; rather, so-called experts who filled the hours of the global 24-hour news cycle spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Many of these “experts” had little understanding of nuclear operations or radiation protection, but they offered their opinions as scientific facts.

News producers sought people with expertise, but producers often have little experience in judging credentials and weighing the technical expertise of different people. In the crushing demand for experts, news producers naturally turned to people who had previously commented on nuclear or science matters to aid their interpretation of the news from Japan. Well-known personalities from nuclear nonproliferation policy organizations confidently predicted increased cancers in Alaska and the West Coast of the United States. A popular theoretical physicist and media personality made dozens of television appearances ridiculing the Japanese effort to cool the reactors and predicting the loss of the entirety of northern Japan unless the reactors were immediately entombed. There was no sustained counter view or strong challenge to these claims—and perhaps, none was wanted.

The misinformation was a source of tremendous frustration to ANS members, who barraged ANS headquarters and the ANS Web site with demands that ANS counteract the flow of misinformation. But, the Fukushima Daiichi accident had moved from a news event to a media circus. The global fascination with the ongoing crisis at Fukushima was an opportunity for the media to increase advertising revenues. This is not intended to be a criticism of the media, but simply to put into context the decisions that ANS was about to make.

VII.B.2. A Major Commitment

For ANS, the decision to mount a crisis communication campaign required a significant commitment of staff resources and members’ time. ANS is a voluntary society, and the members who supported the response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident did so with no compensation or any expectation that their efforts would boost ANS fundraising. Putting aside their careers, many ANS members suddenly found themselves on the national stage in the midst of the media circus. To supplement the media outreach effort, ANS called upon its social media group to rapidly expand ANS’s presence on the Internet. The group was a loosely knit coalition of nuclear professionals and other nuclear advocates. Committed to using digital communications to convey science-based perspectives on nuclear energy and combat misinformation, the group played a crucial role in projecting ANS’s views into the volatile and demanding world of social media. Another key role the group played was quickly identifying incorrect information contained in mainstream printed and Internet-based media and providing on-the-record corrections.

As the dramatic images of explosions, terrified evacuees, and increasingly ad hoc attempts to cool the reactor played across global media, the flow of misinformation turned into a flood. The demand for information and on-air interviews by ANS experts was overwhelming. One week turned into two, then three, and still the Fukushima Daiichi accident remained the headline story. The ad hoc coalitions so ably put together by ANS staff began to break apart as members returned to their jobs and obligations. The problem was not that ANS was incapable of responding; rather, it was incapable of a sustained effort.

VII.C. ANS Risk Communication and Crisis Communication Recommendations

The Committee is focusing its recommendations to address the role and activities of a professional scientific membership society before, during, and after a nuclear event. As such, ANS must commit to an ongoing effort to build upon the lessons learned during the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The American Nuclear Society should develop a Nuclear Event Communications Plan (the Plan):

The Plan must include budgetary authority and mechanisms to support activation of the Plan.

The Plan should proceed in a timely manner.

ANS should convene a Technical Group on Nuclear Communications (the Technical Group) under the auspices of the Public Information Committee (the PI Committee). The mission of the Technical Group would include incorporating communications techniques, tools, resources, and expertise into the scientific and technical work of ANS.

In parallel with the establishment of the Technical Group, the PI Committee should convene an Advisory Group on Nuclear Event Communications (the Advisory Group) to develop the Plan for review by the PI Committee and, eventually, endorsement by the ANS Board of Directors.

The Advisory Group should include crisis communications and risk communications experts, including thought leaders from outside ANS.

The Committee recommends the following for the Plan:

Focus on developing a cadre of experienced nuclear professionals who are willing to “embed” themselves with major U.S. media outlets during a nuclear crisis.

Match experts with geographic regions, both in the United States and abroad, and develop relationships with the appropriate media in those regions.

Incorporate social media tools and techniques into the Plan.

Prepare focused messages specific to crisis communications.

Make available a publicly accessible, communications-focused Web site specific to the nuclear crisis.

Commit to an ongoing media training and risk communications training program for ANS membership as a whole (required for designated ANS crisis communicators).

Examine methods to ensure that ANS has immediate access to the best available information from relevant governmental bodies and trade associations.

The American Nuclear Society should work with other organizations, such as the Health Physics Society and the American Physical Society, on sharing risk communications resources in general and specifically on developing improved methods of communicating radiation and radiation risk to the public.

Moreover, ANS should commit to an ongoing, sustained, and proactive Congressional and media outreach program to increase national nuclear literacy and to establish ANS as a credible resource during nuclear incidents.

Finally, ANS should develop enhanced communications methods to provide ANS members with information and updates during a nuclear event.

VII.D. Final Thoughts

Among the most important questions for ANS to face as a result of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is how we, as nuclear professionals, and ANS, as a professional society, could improve our risk communication and crisis communication and be prepared for future events, were they to occur. The efforts made by our members in responding to and supporting ANS’s outreach efforts demonstrate a resolve to not remain silent as events unfold, to advance ANS’s position and share information, and to be proactive in countering misinformation. The Fukushima Daiichi accident will provide lessons learned on many fronts, but for ANS, perhaps one of the most significant will be in accepting and transforming the role of ANS in risk communication and crisis communication.