The nuclear radiation risk in Japan seems to be growing by the day (by the hour?).
How does one attempt to put context on that risk?
On March 14, in that moment in time, The Wall Street Journal opinion page (sub. required) attempted to do just that through the voice of William Tucker, an expert on (and proponent of) nuclear power.
Even while thousands of people are reported dead or missing, whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, and gas and oil fires rage out of control, press coverage of the Japanese earthquake has quickly settled on the troubles at two nuclear reactors as the center of the catastrophe….
The core of a nuclear reactor operates at about 550 degrees Fahrenheit, well below the temperature of a coal furnace and only slightly hotter than a kitchen oven…. You can’t have a “runaway reactor,” nor can a reactor explode like a nuclear bomb. A commercial reactor is to a bomb what Vaseline is to napalm….
There was a small release of radioactive steam at Three Mile Island in 1979, and there have also been a few releases at Fukushima Daiichi. These produce radiation at about the level of one dental X-ray in the immediate vicinity and quickly dissipate….
If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact. Researchers have spent 30 years trying to find health effects from the steam releases at Three Mile Island and have come up with nothing. With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.
I want to believe Tucker, as I’m sure many others do. But there’s something amiss with his overabundant “calm context.” Something about the way he’s presented his case….
For guidance, I emailed the Tucker article to risk-communications guru Peter Sandman. Peter graciously shared his insights with me – and then with all of his followers through a guestbook post (with my permission, post-haste).
I encourage you to read Peter’s full response through the link above. I’ve have Peter’s permission to cross-post some highlights here:
From what I know and what I can find out, I basically agree with Tucker’s conclusion, even though it would be more credible coming from a less predictably one-sided proponent of nuclear power….
One of the basic principles of crisis communication is to be sufficiently alarmist in your early communications that you’re confident you won’t have to come back later and tell people “it’s worse than we thought.” On the whole, the public communications of TEPCO and Japanese government officials haven’t struck me as over-reassuring in tone or content; certainly they’ve been less reassuring than Tucker’s op-ed….
Although a serious radiation release isn’t inconceivable, most experts think it remains unlikely. It’s a possible catastrophe threatening an area that is still experiencing an actual catastrophe….
…there are predictable reasons why people in general and Japanese people in particular are primed to obsess over nuclear risks. And we know a lot about what it takes to help overwrought people put their fears into context. Dismissive, disrespectful articles like Tucker’s aren’t what it takes.
I’m afraid a piece like his may actually widen the gulf between those who are fearful of nuclear power and mistrustful of its proponents and those who are defensive of nuclear power and contemptuous of anybody who isn’t a proponent.
As you say, we need explanations that start from an empathic base: conceding that people’s nuclear fears are not just natural and understandable, but even wise. We need explanations whose aim is to reassure people who are excessively upset, not to over-reassure people who are appropriately upset. Tucker’s aim seems to be mostly to show how foolish it is for anybody to be upset. Even if he is just preaching to the choir, he is setting them a bad example – providing debating points with which to overwhelm the opposition rather than the sorts of more moderate comments that might actually comfort the fearful or convince the doubtful….
Nuclear power proponents have been their own worst enemy for a long time. They can’t help scoffing at the creepy horror a lot of people feel about nuclear anything. They can’t help discounting the past – not just accidents like Chernobyl (a genuine disaster) and Three Mile Island (a near miss), but also the industry’s heritage of baseline opacity punctuated by periodic dishonesty….
The nuclear power industry is among the few industries that still don’t begin to understand the need to treat people’s fears as valid, the need to keep acknowledging that those fears are not baseless. Even with what’s happening right now in Japan, the nuclear industry is still having trouble acknowledging that nuclear fears are not baseless.
Bravo, Peter. Again.
If you have thoughts, share them below.
Mar. 27 update: Several related articles, posts and insights:
- Salon.com: Crisis casts doubt on nuke industry P.R. campaign
- Crisisblogger: CNN follows its irresponsible pattern – with Japan earthquake – focus here is more on media reporting of the risks
- The New York Times: Q. & A. on the Nuclear Crisis in Japan – several Q’s focus on the risks and how they’re being communicated
- HBR blog: Crisis Management Failures in Japan’s Reactors and the BP Spill – see the section on “Confusing Information”