Why nuclear must improve its communications efforts

November 12th, 2013, Published in Articles: Energize

Communications around the Fukushima accident were never going to be easy. But a carefree handling of the safety scale used has possibly done more harm than good.

The nuclear industry, understandably indulgent with the Japanese administration in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident that happened in March 2011, has been growing increasingly impatient with the way recent developments have been communicated. At the heart of the problem has been the use the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) have made of the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) to report on the severity of storage tank leaks that were uncovered last month.

“In Japan we have seen a nuclear incident turn into a communication disaster,” grumbled Agneta Rising, director general of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), in a recent press statement. “Mistakes in applying and interpreting the INES scale have given it an exaggerated central role in coverage of nuclear safety. “This cannot continue: if it is to have any role in public communication, INES must only be used in conjunction with plain-language explanations of the public implications, if any, of an incident.” The WNA points out that INES ratings are intended for comparison of safety-related events at nuclear power plants in context, to draw distinction between events of real significance from lesser events.

The scale goes from Level 0, a “deviation” with no safety significance, to Level 7, a “major accident” with widespread health and environmental effects.

The WNA says the NRA was warned by the International Atomic Energy Agency that: “Frequent changes of rating will not help communicate the actual situation in a clear manner.”

Serious incident

Yet this is exactly what happened as news of the leak unfolded. The leak was ultimately categorised as Level 3 on the INES scale, or “serious incident”. That sounds bad at face value, even though within the INES scale it still corresponds to a localised event with a low probability of significant public exposure. The last part of this description got lost in translation in Japan, however, leading to a rash of alarmist headlines abroad. Furthermore, says the WNA: “Repeated revisions by Japanese authorities led to the impression that INES is a ‘nuclear threat level’ that goes up and down to predict what might come next.”

“It’s not helping anybody,” adds Jeremy Gordon, the WNA’s head of information management. “The INES scale was created after Chernobyl because the public was frightened about every little thing that could happen in a nuclear power plant. People had no reference point to say how bad things were. It really is useful at telling you what an event is not: something small can go wrong in a nuclear power plant and that can be serious for the operator or in terms of regulation, but not in terms of ultimate public safety.

“The INES scale is useful but it really has to be communicated in full context. You can’t just say ‘It’s a Level 3’ and then walk away. Nuclear authorities need to make sure they present all the information, and I mean real-life information, not just data.”

Botched communications

Margaret Harding, chief executive of the nuclear power advisory firm 4 Factor Consulting, agrees that the Japanese authorities have botched communications around Fukushima. “My personal opinion is TEPCO has made a dog’s dinner of the work,” she says.

Conclusion

What is clear is that the implications of bad communication and solely data driven information provided to the public does not just hurt the nuclear energy industry on a local level, but now globally as the public becomes increasingly ill-informed and articles go viral through social media.

Rather than waiting for the media and the public (which includes local, state and national government officials) to figure things out as they go along when an incident first occurs, it is up to the national regulators, the utilities, power plant managers and nuclear reactor companies to be even more pre-prepared to provide meaningful, factual and easy to disseminate information in the case of an incident or scenario.

The communications teams of these entities will also have to work on ensuring that the complexity of the science that goes into building and running a nuclear power plant does not drip down into the public messages, but rather provides the public with information it can understand and use, especially when explaining a safety breach or incident.

Contact James Sampson, Nuclear Energy Insider, jsampson@nuclearenergyinsider.com

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