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The Cheapest of Fukushima’s Lessons

Julian D. A. Wiseman

Abstract: Tepco was terrible at communicating the problems at Fukushima. There was a complete failure to understand that corporate PR is not convincing. Instead, nuclear power stations should have a blogger, separate from PR, to provide timely technical details.


Publication history: only at Usual disclaimer and copyright terms apply.

Contents: Introduction; Public Relations; British Energy’s Public Relations; The Solution; Conclusion.


Japan has had a terrible time awash in human tragedy: an earthquake, a tsunami, and—the subject of this essay—an ongoing nuclear accident. Operators of nuclear power stations will doubtless have many lessons to learn, but one of those lessons is cheap. That cheap lesson is the subject of this essay: communications.

Let us start by observing part of the mess of the current communications setup.

From the Financial Times, 15th March 2011, Patience wears thin at Tepco’s bungling:

Tepco, particularly in its communications, has looked more like the Keystone Kops than is desirable in an organisation struggling to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

Tepco’s attempt to impart information has left the public mostly confused and incredulous. At press conferences, anxious-looking junior executives hang their heads like naughty schoolboys, and apologise for “causing inconvenience”, a stock Japanese phrase. In matters of substance, they appear to know little.

“The public relations of Tepco is very poor,” said Shijuro Ogata, a retired Bank of Japan official who has hardly ventured outside his house in a Tokyo suburb since Friday’s earthquake struck. “It is very clumsy and they don’t seem to be so knowledgeable.”

From the BBC, 16th March 2011, As it happened: Japan earthquake on Tuesday:

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has strongly criticised the Tokyo Electric Power Company for its handling of the Fukushima No 1 nuclear plant, according to Japan's Kyodo news. "The TV reported an explosion. But nothing was said to the premier's office for about an hour," a Kyodo News reporter overheard Mr Kan saying during a meeting with company executives. "What the hell is going on?"

The US government advised its citizens within 80km to leave; the Japanese government said 20km. If the US gov’t was wrong, more information might have prevented that indignity. If the Japanese gov’t was wrong, more public information might have prevented that cover-up. From the US Embassy in Tokyo, 17th March 2011, A Message to American Citizens from Ambassador John V. Roos:

we are recommending, as a precaution, that American citizens who live within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant evacuate the area

From the Financial Times, 18th March 2011, Japan claims progress in nuclear fight:

Meanwhile, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, met with Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan and other leaders and said the international community wanted “more and more accurate information, more quickly,” from Japan.

So the public relations has been a mess, there being a shortage of credible timely information.

Public Relations

The public has much at stake in a nuclear disaster, and each family must take a decision about whether to stay or leave. The public, and learned observers, might think that their own interests can be different to the interests of the operator of a nuclear plant. The public will want real information, both directly, and filtered through unbiased expertise.

This need would not be met by enlarging headquarter’s public-relations team. PR is thought, not always wrongly, to be there to present a selection of the facts in the best possible light: nothing has gone wrong; nothing can go wrong; we apologise for the inconvenience.

British Energy’s Public Relations

Since the middle of 2010, each nuclear power station owned by British Energy has published a “Monthly Station Report”. These are not content-free, but have very obviously been filtered through public relations, and perhaps through lawyers. Many of them say far less about the nuclear technicals than about school visits and community relations.

The best of the reports currently online is that for Sizewell B, May, June & July 2010, which is the best because it has the most real content rather than bland reassurance. Even so, less than half of the word count is such content, most of the remainder being “Local Events”, “Station visits”, and “Company News”. And, being monthly, they are far slower than would be wanted in a real emergency.

So the British Energy reports are a nod in the right direction, but nowhere near enough.

The Solution

The solution must have a number of qualities.

So each nuclear power station should have a real-time blog, and a roster of staff to feed it.

Let us imagine the outline of an interesting post. At such-and-such a time a light started blinking, saying that a thermometer connected to equipment X is reading hot. That equipment should run at TGood°, and is now showing at TBad°. A different thermometer, in such-and-such a location so-many metres away from equipment X, is at T°, inside its normal range of TMin° to TMax°. The pressure there is also near the middle of its usual range. So it could be that equipment X is indeed slightly or slowly failing. In case that is so, such-and-such flow is being redirected to such-and-such alternative. Or it could be that the gadget that is monitoring equipment X is broken. With equipment X off, its temperature should decrease at such-and-such a pace. If the gadget shows that, it was probably the equipment that was malfunctioning. If the gadget doesn’t, it could be either. Meanwhile, all the radiation monitors, inside and outside, are showing their usual background values. Within an hour there will be a further report on what is happening, and what is being done.

Within an hour there should be a further report. It doesn’t have to list all the answers; it just needs to say what observations have been made; what hypothesis best fits those observations; and what other hypotheses fit most of those observations. Some hypotheses will be happy. Some, not. Report both types, and post further updates as things are learnt. Later, when the scribe has more time and events are slow, the blog could describe what back-ups and fail-safes remained between this failure and something far worse.

Much of this would be respected: timeliness; a richness of gently-expressed detail; that a knowledgable outsider could be watching the watchers of the power station; and, best of all, an absence of bland reassurance.

Of course, what happens during a crisis should be practiced and tested. Exercises are done in control room simulators. There could be a updates from there. Reporting from a simulated problem should be clearly labelled: the channel itself should have a name and information identifying that this is practice, and each post within should start with a concise reminder. (A false-alarm panic would cost lives and money, so label well.) The government should be given notice, as senior civil servants might want to watch and consider their own communications arrangements, both incoming and outgoing. And after the exercise, invite the authorities to suggest improvements.


Bland reassurance doesn’t work. A knowledgeable blogger, reporting timely technical information, would be better trusted, and would contribute to better handling of crises. And all this would be cheap!

— Julian D. A. Wiseman
22nd March 2011

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