Japan’s disaster and future of nuclear power

I’ve not had much to say about the Japanese disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation releases. One reason is my skepticism about what I was getting from the US media. It seemed to me that they were following such predictable patterns of “blame game,” finding conspiracies of cover-up, and complaining about poor communication from the government and TEPCO officials that I was highly suspect.

Indeed, I talked to a friend who has a son in Japan near Fukushima who said no one there believes the US media because of their unreliability in attempting to create a state of fear. The reserve of the Japanese media was a stark contrast.

While I remain skeptical of the degree of failure of the Japanese in communication, I do now accept the considerable difference in how they have communicated about this  disaster and how we in the US would communicate. The primary driver of that being public expectations and media reactions.

One of the best comparisons of these expectations come from a blog on Financial Times by David Bowen of Bowen Craggs, a UK consultancy that looks at web effectiveness. Bowen compared Japan’s use of websites to communicate about this with BP in the gulf spill: “BP got many things disastrously wrong in the Gulf of Mexico last year, but one thing it managed well was its online response.” He then provides considerable detail about BP’s web activities comparing it to Japan’s.

He notes that despite considerably more use of Internet and mobile devices in Japan, crisis communication is very reserved and focused on media press releases: “…Japanese companies do not regard websites as mainstream communication channels…the press releases are aimed presumably at the press. So the sites are not being used as tools to talk directly to people who might be affected.”

This blogpost by Andy Beaupre does a good job of specifically identifying some of the failings of TEPCO and the Japanese government in communicating about this crisis.

So, now doubt communication failed as much as the reactor’s cooling systems. We can learn much about the differences in the world’s approach to communication by closer study of the Japanese method vs. what those of us in the US expect. I also suspect that many in Japan involved in this event and communicating are shaking their heads in disbelief with the likes of Shepard Smith and Anderson Cooper. They must be asking how many times can you say the sky is falling! the sky is falling! and still be believed?

Perception is reality as we like to say in this business, and the world’s perception now is that nuclear power is too dangerous to deal with. Whether this perception is driven by US media “state of fear” reporting, Japan’s communication failures, or the simple fact that radiation leak occurred as a result of a natural disaster is probably impossible to determine and beside the point. That is something critical for emergency managers and crisis communicators to ponder–long term perception is the ultimate arbiter of success or failure of a response. Perception is created both by communication and the facts on the ground.

The news today is that the gulf spill was caused by a broken pipe. A broken pipe that prevented the blowout preventer from working properly. But it doesn’t matter, does it. The public’s interest has gone elsewhere. They long ago concluded based on the media reports that the spill was caused by evil-intentioned people who were greedy and  negligent and who could give a care less about anyone or anything other than filthy profits. BP’s bad culture created the spill, not some stupid broken pipe. Accidents don’t happen in our world. They are always caused by someone who at heart cares about nothing except themselves or worse, profits.

So the perception of carelessness, conspiratorial cover-up and reckless disregard for safety and the environment that now surrounds TEPCO and the Japanese government is resulting in a backlash against nuclear power. According to a study by ORC International more than half of Americans back a moratorium on new reactors. The Christian Science Monitor similarly reported on the loss of support in America for nuclear power. It also reports on the numerous “near misses” at nuclear facilities–any wonder American’s are fearful? Why the near misses–lax oversight of course. A new BOEMRE is probably coming.
Meanwhile, although the studies show growing support for wind and solar, the oil and gas industry recognizes the impact of American’s distrust of nuclear. Shell’s president of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) commented about the nuclear incident indicating that it will result in increase demand for LNG.

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of leading communicators in the nuclear industry a couple of years ago and I will again speak to the industry at an upcoming conference in May. My message then was: you have a very good story to tell to a very skeptical and fearful public, but sentiment is shifting and it is important that you tell your story. Now, things have changed. The shift is no longer positive toward nuclear energy. Germany has just sworn off nuclear power and Europe tends to lead US opinion on environmental matters.

There is still a case to be made for nuclear power, particularly as we Americans and this administration in particular are inclined to drill for oil and gas, as long as it is someone else’s backyard. We are in a strange place relating to energy–our demand for it continues to grow and our reliance on energy sucking devices continues to expand. But our distaste for the means of generating that needed energy also grows. We’re not being very rational or realistic. And a big part of the blame for that goes to communicators who have failed in their missions–both Japan and our own nuclear industry at home.

2 thoughts on “Japan’s disaster and future of nuclear power”

  1. This is a very important and useful post. It is interesting that distinctions between Public Affairs and Emergency Public Information not made from my point of view in Japan.
    And now three (3) reactors confirmed by GOJ as in core melt status and 4 reactors to be written off and never generate any more power.

    A timeline on the contamination of ground water issue might be interesting for tracking a potentially huge public health issue in Japan’s Honshu Island, that nation’s major population center including Tokyo and over 100M Japanese citizens and residents.

    Thanks Gerald for all the hard work represented by this blog.

  2. Ugh! The US media is driving me crazy. With 250,000 people displaced by the earthquake and tsunami the news focus continues to be on the nuclear incident in Fukushima prefecture. On the other hand TEPCO can’t seem to get out of their own way in handling the crisis communication. Such a high risk, low trust situation is the time for organizations to bring out their best is communications and messaging, yet it’s not happening.

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