Monday, March 14, 2011

Plain Talk About Fukushima

The headlines coming out of Japan today are alarming.  "Authorities scramble to avert meltdown." "Fukushima second worst nuclear accident in history." "Meltdown probably underway at Fukushima." Are you scared
now? How about, "Radioactive releases in Japan could last months?" Obviously, things are bad. How bad? Well, you know, bad. If that seems inarticulate, consider this. As I write this, authorities around the world are bickering about whether the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan is a level 4 or level 5 incident. Oh my goodness. Level 5.

The very fact that we can't articulate any relative level of "badness" may give you some insight into just how hard it is to have decent crisis communications in this situation and, frankly, how unhelpful the media reporting has tended to be. What's a level 4? What's a level 5? What does it mean to the people near the plant? What does it mean to me?

Why is it so hard to get good, straightforward information from the media about this accident? I think there are three major reasons: sensationalism, science and subconscious.

For starters, these headlines are sensationalistic. Sensationalism sells papers and gets web hits. They want to draw you in, and it works, so they keep doing it. It's hard to summarize the scientific nuances of the situation in five catchy words.

This brings us to science. The science here is way beyond what the average American truly understands. Summarizing it quickly for the purposes of crisis communication is pretty nearly impossible. This is especially true because we want the people who really understand this stuff to be working on containing the accident, not explaining it to us.

This leaves us to fend for ourselves, and we have a problem. Our subconscious (ok, that's a stretch, but I needed an "s" word for the alliteration) does not like the notion of a nuclear accident. Those of us of a certain age were reared on the notion that the United States and the USSR were going to blow each other to nuclear smithereens, and that we would all die from radiation poisoning if we survived the initial blast. When we we hear "explosion" and "nuclear" and "radiation," the memory of those lessons is stored in the particular file drawer in our minds which gets opened. It gets worse, because when we hear "nuclear," "explosion" and "Japan," our associations are with horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But let's try to put the hysteria to the side for one moment and figure out what those of us who are not nuclear physicists can actually figure out. Thus far, this is a level 4 or 5 accident. These levels come from the International Nuclear Events Scale, which goes from 0 to 7. A 0 means it has no detectable implications. A 7 is Chernobyl, the only 7 ever to happen. A 4 is a local impact event, and a 5 is an accident with wider consequences. By way of comparison, the Three Mile Island accident was a 5. That probably doesn't help a whole lot, but it's a start.

If you'd like a really good look at why we are so bad at understanding the risk here and why the notion of it going on for a long time is so distressing, I strongly recommend a post over at the blog of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. The fact that the author has the same last name as me is purely coincidental. I'm sure there are many, many people with the last name "Zikmund-Fisher." Well, actually, just four. This one happens to be married to me, but that's not why I'm recommending it -- it's really good.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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