After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Nuclear Communication Needs to be Built-In

Posted on March 27, 2011
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

The communication setting at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor may be stabilizing, as (one hopes) is the nuclear emergency there itself. Yet it’s unfortunate there were communication alarms in the first place.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says it may have to re-examine its role in nuclear safety at a conference next month in Vienna. “The responsibility of the IAEA is to provide authoritative and validated information as quicky as possible,” Yukiya Amano, the agency’s executive director said from Vienna in a Fukushima-related statement, “but doing this under the current arrangements inevitably takes time and has limitations.”

The “current arrangements” at any nuclear plant anywhere ought to include a General Emergency crisis response level and, at any emergency level, provisions for communication to be included as an operatonal discipline in itself.

That way, there would be recognition that the informational aspects of a nuclear emergency are virtually as important to government officials and the public as the management’s technical competence.

Credibility counts as much as proficiency in a nuclear emergency. Crisis plans at U.S. nuclear plants provide for information to be provided at Joint Information Centers, a great response concept.

How information for a stricken plant is gathered and approved for release, however, is where the importance of communication being done systematically – as a discipline in itself – comes in.

The workers at Fukushima are risking their lives to bring the plant under control. We don’t know from this distance whether there are or not, but there ought to be communicators among them. Staffers who understand plant operations along with likely public concerns, but have no operational role, are important to have continually on hand.

David Ropeik, an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and a writer on risk communication, notes in a Scientific American blog post that “it took four days for the government and TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Fukushima plant’s operator) to coordinate communications, and the disjointed and incomplete information released in those first few critical days created grave mistrust in both the company and the government.”

Ropeik acknowledges that “it is impossible and unfair to criticize specifics” from a distance. “But it is clear,” he adds, “that not nearly enough attention has been given to the importance of risk communication as a key part of managing the overall risk.”

That seems clear and, at an engineering setting without prior disaster experience, not surprising.

Even so, emergency response needs to include forthright communication, from the sounding of the first alarms. Neither the IAEA nor anyone else involved in the management of nuclear operations should have any doubt about that. – Doug Bedell


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