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Poor risk communication in Japan is making the risk much worse

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The radiation crisis in Japan worsens for two reasons: one that we’ve heard about, one that we haven’t but which may in the end do far more harm. The Japanese government, and the company in charge of the crippled nuclear complex, are struggling with their risk and crisis communications, and their missteps are fueling mistrust and anger, which magnifies fear and stress, which may do more health damage than the radiation itself.

Some efforts have been outstanding. The constant presence of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, providing updates several times an hour, dressed in the work clothes of an emergency responder, not the suit and tie of a bureaucrat, and responding to questions without a script and with concern, has been very important. But Tokyo Electric’s (TEPCO) apology, days into the crisis, even though made by company President Masataka Shimizu, seemed insincere against news that the company had to be ordered by Prime Minister Naoto Kan to keep it’s workers at the site, despite radiation danger, to try to bring the nuclear reactors under control. Further, it took four days for the government and TEPCO 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. Edano himself said yesterday "In hindsight, we could have moved a little quicker in assessing the situation and coordinating all that information and provided it faster."

It is impossible and unfair to criticize specifics. At this distance it is hard to know exactly how things are playing out, what’s being said, and harder still given that a lot is lost in translation. We also must respectfully remember this is an extraordinary crisis, with profound changes happening minute-by-minute, and the people fighting the fires can’t stop what they’re doing to pick up the phone and update headquarters on the latest developments moment-by-moment.

But it is clear than not nearly enough attention has been given to the importance of risk communication as a key part of managing the overall risk from these events. And that bears squarely on the health and safety of the public. Risk management in a crisis has to include not just the threat itself but also how people perceive and respond to the threat. Risk communication is a vital tool; for managing that part of the overall risk. How would you feel if messages about possible danger are inconsistent, and you learn things from the press that the government or company knew but didn’t tell you?

How does it feel when the Japanese government says radiation levels outside the plant are low and safe but experts from around the world sound more worried, or when the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, has to scold the Japanese government by publicly asking them to share more information with the IAEA itself. How does it feel to know that TEPCO, and to a lesser degree the government, has a history of being less than forthright and open about problems at other nuclear facilities? Press reports have revealed that the company has frequently been purposefully deceitful about nuclear problems at other sites in the past. See "Japan Disaster Caps Decades of Faked Reports, Accidents". Stunningly, all these mistakes have been made in a country which has the most horrific first-hand experience with the frightening risks of radiation, albeit two generations ago, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a word, that sort of poor risk communication will make you feel mistrustful. And mistrust in the people who are supposed to keep you safe translates into anger and worry, which causes all sorts of serious health risks. The likelihood of Post Traumatic Stress disorder, depression, and anxiety goes way up. Biologically, fear produces chronic stress, which increases blood pressure and raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, suppresses the immune system and raises susceptibility to and severity of infectious disease, increases the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, suppresses growth, memory, and fertility. The risk from how people perceive risk, is as real as the physical danger itself, perhaps more.

We know that from previous nuclear crises. In "Chernobyl’s Legacy", a sweeping review of Chernobyl at the 20th anniversary in 2006, the UN found that "The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date." In a review of how the government handled Three Mile Island, a senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission official who had been involved said of the poor communication "What we had done to these people was just outrageous. We had frightened them so bad, they thought they were going to die." Stunningly, tragically, a similar inattention to effective risk communication seems to be happening in Japan.

A NY Times story "Radiation Fears and Distrust Push Thousand From Homes" quoted a citizen who fled his home, which was outside the mandated evacuation zone, "We might be overreacting, but we also know Tokyo Electric" — the plants’ operator — "is not telling us everything," and reported that another ,"Hitoshi Suzuki, a 34-year-old construction worker, said that he thought the problem at the nuclear plants was twice as bad as the government let on. He produced a cellphone with Web sites that claimed the government was covering up the real damage at the plants."

A Bloomberg news story "Conflicting Information Drives Anxiety in Japan Nuclear Crisis" quoted another citizen saying "We’re furious about a lack of information from both the government and TEPCO. We also noticed there are conflicting accounts from the parties. Foreign media is reporting the impact of the nuke accident would be disastrous while Japanese media play it down. The gap also urged us to leave."

A New York Times article "Dearth of Candor from Japan’s Leadership said "…an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public (is) frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant." There is "…a lot of frustration among the public…demanding government to be more forthcoming. Not knowing is their biggest fear." (my emphasis)

There are many reasons for this poor risk communication; Arrogance and institutional self-protection and engineering/scientific hubris on the part of the company, the tendency by risk managers to avoid being honest with people about scary news for fear that it will make people afraid (which is a common but thoughtless mistake, since people are already afraid and the lack of openness and the mistrust it produces make things FAR worse), and a combative/defensive relationship with an aggressive, alarmist news media.

But the biggest mistake is an obvious failure to recognize that risk communication is a vital part of overall risk management. Far too little respect has been paid to the risk caused by the way people perceive and respond to risk. The peril is not just the radiation. It’s people’s fears of radiation. Whether those fears are consistent with the evidence of the actual physical risk (they aren’t) doesn’t matter. Fear is real, and does real harm. Tragically, though history has taught us these lessons, they don’t appear to have been learned, and the health of the Japanese public is at risk as a result.

About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

Statement of potential conflict of interest: I covered nuclear issues as a environmental reporter in Boston for 22 years, then wrote a book, RISK A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the world Around You which includes a chapter on nuclear radiation, (paid for by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin). It floored me to learn what science knows about the carcinogenicity of ionizing radiation. In my teaching and consulting career I have worked for the IAEA to help them prepare communications materials for emergencies, and helping their member states do the same, and I have lectured to communications officers of nuclear companies and their trade association, on how to communicate to the public more honestly. The full list of my clients is on my website,

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 6 Comments

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  1. 1. okwhen 11:16 am 03/21/2011

    This is just another reminder of how corporations control our lives and destiny. How is it possible that the Japanese government in combination with the power corporations are allow to withhold information that affects the entire globe. I understand to a point the secretive approach to Chernobyl based on Russia at the time was a communist country. I guess people will take whatever is given to them and die with what they do not know.

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  2. 2. sonoran 12:45 pm 03/21/2011

    In addition to those entities that were communicating poorly by witholding information; the media was communicating poorly by spewing information it didn’t have and knowlege it didn’t know.

    If instilling fear is indeed the greatest health risk in these types of accidents perhaps we ought to consider that before making up wild speculative stories about "Chernobyl on Steroids" and global radiation death clouds that seemed all too frequent in media accounts. The impetus for this seemed to be an escalting competition for readership where each breathless disaster laden story had to outdo the one that came before it

    Irresponsible witholding of information and ridiculous exaggeration of risk and outcome seem to be two sides of the same coin. With the already traumatized Japanese population caught in the middle.

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  3. 3. timda 1:58 pm 03/21/2011

    Risk Communication or Public Relations (or spin) is a side issue.
    The current media model: endless comment about comment about speculation, without seeking the facts, is the problem.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 2:45 am 03/22/2011

    I agree and hope that SA’s NPR sound-byte wasn’t heard in Japan: "Fukushima Will Be a Wasteland"; "Scientific American’s David Biello judges Fukushima to have reached Chernobyl proportions."

    The author mentions potential difficulties imposed by language translation barriers. However, I suggest there are much deeper cultural interpretation differences that may make it impossible for Americans to fully comprehend the factors that determine the effectiveness of critical mass communications for the Japanese public. I suspect that the author may have even underestimated the cultural distinctions affecting public perceptions in New Orleans that may be different than Boston.

    A trivial example of these distinctions is Japanese peoples propensity to respond with "Hai" (Yes) to most any statement. Often understood by Americans to indicate agreement with a statement, it is simply an uncommitted acknowledgement of that statement.

    Certainly many of the authors points may be valid – my guess is that, in general, consistent communication of information and coordination of activities are especially important to the Japanese public.

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  5. 5. In-Tokyo 6:06 am 03/22/2011

    Dear Mr. Ropeic,

    Please come to Tokyo and meet some people for yourself. I will be happy to introduce you to everyone I know.

    Yes some believe that everything that is known is not being told. Still, there is a great deal of ongoing information being distributed, and people here are reassuring each other that we are ok.

    There is a certain doomsday, fanatical, panic-attack end-of-the-world sentiment among some reports. People here know too that what the West says is too often inaccurate.

    You are underestimating how Japanese people are reassuring each other. You can’t understand that unless you understand the relationships between them and you can clearly see how people are reassuring each other.

    Even when my child drags me someplace I’ve never been and asks me to do something I’ve never done and I start panicking because I am confused and overwhelmed by the Japanese involved and recent events have me on edge, people are very very reassuring. You are really missing that aspect. People in Tokyo are very calm. It’s amazing.

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  6. 6. Yamada 12:13 pm 03/26/2011

    Well, living in Tokyo for a certain long time–and speaking Japanese from the day one–I assess this magnitude of "uncertainty" spreading in the air is once in a hundred years experience. People in Tokyo are quite reassuring as have been posted above. Especially, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano responding with concern and without script should not be underestimated. It works to me as some covert risk communication. He is one of few representative persons in Japan now who appears in national broadcast and communicates their own responsibility to the crisis. On Friday 25th, Edano rejected TEPCO’s get-out clause saying that, "they would be unlikely to easily escape from recompense"

    But, to be honest, it seems to me that the reassurance is "to some extent." What challenges my nerves among other things is that part of reassurance in Tokyo seems to be resulting from partly voluntary complacency, which would be virtue for some instances, but vice at other times. The thing is that the TV has long been staging normal routine program in Tokyo–drama, music hall, comedy show etc, while people are half-admittedly awaiting the degree of the crisis to divulge at length. It boils down to the whole system that Japanese (it does not necessarily restricted to Japanese) academia, government, and broadcast unavoidably called for make-shift downscale of true risk in the face of the unprecedented nuclear accident–as was the case with Imperial Headquarters at the end of WWII. People are knowing it, but people cannot speak about it. Japan physically is much much smaller than the US. It is hard to go overseas for low wage-earners like me, taking a leave, making uncertain excuses. Even if you do know how much health risk is involved in the radiation, there is little way to escape from here, to say nothing of the fact that hardly no return would be openly welcomed to the once escaped.

    For an instance, a key commercial TV station in Tokyo recently broadcast that "57,000 Bq/kg [131-Iodine] spinach" found at about forty kilo-meters from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant "does scarcely pose immediate health risk" "if washed before eating," featuring a so-cold nuclear specialist. "There is totally no problem to be eaten, but as a counter-rumors-action they would better be avoided to be transferred." The reassurance can be virtue sometimes, but vice at other times. It had enabled academia and government together with TEPCO run nuclear power plants unchecked.

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