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Building Confidence and Trust During a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency

International Experts Meeting on Assessment and Prognosis Concludes

Assessment and prognosis help build and maintain public and stakeholder confidence in the actions and decision-making of those who are handling nuclear and radiological emergencies.  (Photo: S. Loof / IAEA)

Intense discussions and sharing lessons learned as well as innovative ideas were the hallmarks of the ninth International Experts Meeting (IEM) which focused on assessment and prognosis in response to a nuclear or radiological emergency. Two hundred experts from 70 countries and five international organizations spent 20 to 24 April sharing best practice examples from different Member States regarding how assessment and prognosis can contribute to building confidence and trust during nuclear and radiological emergencies.

They also focused on what might be the most important aspect in this context: How to coordinate these efforts at an international level.

Trust and Verify

Assessment and prognosis are important in building and maintaining public and stakeholder confidence in the actions and decision-making of those who are handling the emergency.

“You build confidence when you take mitigation actions during an emergency and you can back up those actions with scientific findings and assessment, and you can confirm that these actions were justified by using radiation measurements,” said Lynn Hubbard of Sweden’s Radiation Safety Authority.

Building public trust is part of emergency preparedness and should begin well in advance of an accident. Brian Ahier, Director of the Radiation Protection Bureau within Health Canada, said, “There are many ways of building confidence and part of that is being open and transparent and communicating with the public and stakeholders during the non-emergency preparedness phase. One way of doing that is providing information on what the emergency planning arrangements are, what capabilities and expertise you have in place, and consistently providing environmental monitoring data.”

Ahier also noted that building and maintaining public and stakeholder trust involve harmonised communication, with power plant operators, local, provincial, state, national and international authorities saying the same thing.

Speaking With One Voice

During his keynote address to the IEM, Head of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, Deputy Director General Denis Flory, said of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, “From an international perspective, it was clear, that many different messages were reaching the public on the development of the accident, and how the situation might evolve in the coming weeks and months after the accident. At the same time, there was no clear mechanism to provide a harmonized message to the global community. This absence of a harmonised message created some confusion in the public, even though most of the situation assessments were fundamentally very similar.”

Hubbard, who is also Chair of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Expert Group, which advises the IAEA Secretariat, said this is also one of her greatest concerns with regard to assessment and prognosis. “It was confusing during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident as many countries came out with their own information and it makes the life of the accident country much more difficult. You can easily lose the confidence of the public if there are too many conflicting expert opinions from around the world coming in to the media with their own assessments.”

Member States have asked the IAEA to provide timely, clear, factually correct, objective and easily understandable information on each emergency’s potential consequences and prognosis of possible scenarios, without duplicating or replacing, but rather supporting, the Member States’ role in emergency response.

“No doubt, there is a lot of work to be done to achieve such a delicate balance, but that’s why IEM 9 is so important,” said Hubbard.

One reason coordination is so difficult is the many different criteria countries and organizations use to arrive at assessments and accident prognoses. “There’s definitely a role for the IAEA to facilitate harmonised communication, and I hope that what we get out of IEM 9 this week will inform the next steps that the IAEA will take in this regard,” said Ahier. “I think there’s a lot of interest out there to see this move forward. Still, there are also a lot of questions and I think it’s great that the IAEA is convening these types of meetings to gather the expertise globally and to work collectively on a solution for resolving these challenging issues.”

The next opportunity to discuss the challenges emergency planners and responders face and the strategies to successfully tackle them will be 19-23 October 2015 when the IAEA hosts the International Conference on Global Emergency Preparedness and Response. Learn more about it.

Last update: 28 April 2015