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Emergency Communication

What have we learned since Fukushima?

Laura Gil

Journalists attend daily briefing on the Fukushima Daiichi accident at IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, Austria, 17 March 2011. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Emergency communication


In a nuclear emergency, the communicator’s role is almost as crucial as that of the first responder. Providing clear, accurate information amid the alarm and dread that emergencies provoke — when every second counts — can save lives.

So what have emergency communicators learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident?

“Our job as communicators is to help the public make informed decisions about their safety and the safety of their loved ones,” said Jessica Wieder, Director of radiation information and outreach at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose responsibilities include radiation monitoring. “Radiation emergencies can be scary, so our impulse in the past has been to first calm public anxiety. Now our primary goal is to translate the seriousness of radiological events into informed preparation and action without causing undue panic.”

During the Fukushima Daiichi accident, we learned the importance of getting out timely information. When that didn’t happen, we saw how quickly we lost trust and how hard it was to regain it.
Jessica Wieder, Director, Communications, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Am I safe?

Any situation involving radioactive materials leads to widespread fear, often because, for many, the concept of radiation is unfamiliar and hard to understand. To respond effectively in these situations, communicators must focus on answering a key question raised by those affected: am I safe?

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident made it clear that, to answer this question and reduce public anxiety, communicators need to provide the public with data in a clear format.

“People wanted data. They wanted numbers,” Wieder said. “During the Fukushima Daiichi accident, we learned the importance of getting out timely information. When that didn’t happen, we saw how quickly we lost trust and how hard it was to regain it.”

Before the Fukushima Daiichi accident, only a handful of people had access to EPA’s radiation data, which was password-protected. However, within the first two weeks of the accident, EPA removed the password protection measures and made the data available on its public website, where they have been ever since.

Within 24 hours of the accident, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) — the Japanese company operating the plant in Fukushima — was already providing preliminary radiation monitoring data and real-time updates on conditions at the reactor. It became a challenge, however, for citizens and the media to understand what this information actually meant.

Facts alone do not overcome strong emotions, Wieder added. “We cannot just give the public data; we have to give them data along with explanations, so that they can understand what these data mean in terms of their health.”

Since the accident, the IAEA has supported the Fukushima Prefecture in many areas by providing technical expertise and helping disseminate information to the public. It has helped produce relevant public information materials, including flyers and a website, that show the results of radiation monitoring and decontamination efforts. “Using pictures, infographics, clear explanations and language free of scientific jargon is key to achieving public understanding of the data and addressing perceived risks,” said Miklos Gaspar of the IAEA’s Office of Public Information and Communication and technical officer who oversees the information dissemination support to the Fukushima Prefecture.

Many voices, one message

Once built, credibility must be maintained. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, communicators learned that, to maintain the public’s trust, authoritative voices in an emergency must use the same message with the same tone of voice. “If one organization says one thing, and one expert another, we’ve lost trust. We can’t afford that in emergencies,” Wieder said.

When various trusted sources send out the same data and the same messages to the public, it works. “Having somebody external echoing your message brings a level of additional reliability to the information you are putting out that you might not otherwise have by yourself,” said María Laura Duarte, Head of Communications at Argentina’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority. “Coordinating that in advance is critical.”

In Argentina, like in many other countries, Government representatives, responders and experts from academia have joined forces to work on emergency communication, forming networks, so that in the event of an emergency they know exactly who to call. Involving and briefing the media in advance in preparation for possible incidents, and including them in response exercises, is also useful, Duarte said.

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes

In addition to building trust, coordinated and consistent messaging helps combat misinformation. Following the Fukushima Daiichi accident, information shared by citizens was sometimes incorrect. “The perceived risk of radiation is very high,” Wieder said. “And that leads to misinformation.”

While it is next to impossible to respond to every rumour, communicators agree that the key is to focus on those that are most widespread, and to step in with several different partner organizations to root out inaccuracy.

“If you have to deal with misinformation, try to find a partner who is trusted, for example a doctor from a hospital, and let them clarify the situation to support your message,” said Cora Blankendaal, Senior Communications Advisor at the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG), a company that operates a nuclear research reactor in the Netherlands.

Building trust, one day at a time

But building trust is not only important during emergencies.

“We have to communicate at all times, be it good or bad news,” Duarte said. Educating the population and communicating with them daily, in an open and transparent manner, will make them more prone to trusting the authorities’ messages — should an emergency occur. Social media has become an effective way to do this, since it allows communicators and the public to engage in two-way interactions and build a public dialogue, she said.

Earning public trust means “engaging representatives of the community in radiation measurement and communicating with the public continuously and transparently,” said Gaspar.

March, 2021
Vol. 62-1

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