The bad news keeps coming for Northern Japan. On Monday, the nuclear response group in Tokyo issued a statement revising information that had been previously released regarding the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. CNN puts it simply:
Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced full meltdowns at three reactors in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March, the country’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters said Monday.
Now, I understand that in the aftermath of one of the five most devastating earthquakes recorded, there may be some confusion about how bad one particular site is. And I understand that it’s not exactly easy to tell if a nuclear reactor is leaking, melting down, or just plumb gone. But given that there were calls for more transparency in the immediate aftermath of the incident, both by foreign and Japanese media (Like here. And here.), well, it just goes to show that maybe when there’s smoke, there’s fire.
Okay, sure, nobody will believe TEPCO ever again, but I argue that the damage is worse than that. The Japanese Prime Minister stood there and re-iterated the false statements (not that his approval ratings were anything to write home about beforehand). But, the US government and all of the public health departments across the country said not to worry because there’s been no meltdown, and according to these figures released, we’re in no danger. Ha, ha, ha, silly little lady; don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.
If I remember correctly, the NRC issued A SINGLE press release initially. Wipe hands and kick back ‘cause it’s Miller Time.
Then everybody freaked out cause the Surgeon General said, yeah, it’s scary, and you should be prepared for any consequence, and that didn’t follow the script.
Looking at this issue from a higher perspective takes me to my main point. In all of these trainings we’re told to aim high in our initial damage assessments, so we can walk it back later. TEPCO failed miserably at this and every day was like a drumbeat of worsening news. The US government, after not making virtually any statement for days downplayed the situation as well, instead of using it as a teachable moment. Their goal? To not cause panic. Because that would drive people to stockpile and ultimately take KI (which they did, so yeah, goal not attained).
So, my question to you, fellow PIOs, is this. At what point is it, “aiming high in damage,” and at what point is it, “inciting panic?” And are those two mutually exclusive?
I’m totally sold on the “walking it back” goal, and I’m a big believer in the “people don’t panic” mindset, and I think that, by and large, we could do a better job teaching our public about dangers and what we’re doing about them, and what those dangers mean for them. So, I tend to err on the bigger disaster, but here’s what’s really going on side of things. (See my previous post on Dr. Benjamin.) Our federal partners seemed to have erred on the Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! side of things, maybe improperly. Where do you stand?