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Information Chernobyl

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The last few days have been epic from an emergency management standpoint.  It is hard to see the pictures and video coming out of Japan. Add 3 exploding nuclear reactor buildings, winter weather conditions and, oh yeah, a volcano and a country appears to have been dropped to its knees.

The visuals and reports, while mind numbing also reveal the truth in the power of nature.  Earthquakes discriminate, creating pockets of damage and death.  A tsunami doesn’t.  Regardless of how well a community or nation prepares, the power and fury of an ocean unleashed knows no boundaries, cutting a swath of death and destruction wherever it goes.  Even seemingly “minor” surges across the ocean from the epicenter caused millions in damage and death.

Tonight, a complex of four nuclear reactors may be on the verge of melt down.  “May” is the key word here, as it is hard to figure out what is really going on.  The Japanese government and power company officials are very guarded in their statements, with no apparent consistent and constant public engagement.  Is it just me?  Or is it the result of the overwhelming scope of the crisis, sensitivity/fear of the implications of a nuclear accident, cultural barriers or a combination of all of the above?

My knowledge of nuclear meltdown is limited to three epic events;  1.  Three Mile Island Accident , 2. Chernobyl, and 3. The China Syndrome. OK, the last one is a reach, but was a great movie.  Regardless, it doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to realize that pouring raw seawater on hot reactor cores can’t be anything else but a desperate measure to cool the beasts and prevent an even worst cataclysmic event. The three separate reactor buildings disintegrating live on T.V. only reinforced this seemingly impossible job.  There is no doubt the most competent engineers in the world are working the problems.

But, who’s telling their story?  What are they doing inside the complex?  What are the challenges they face and what have they been able to accomplish?  I don’t have a clue.  All I see are government and media “talking heads”.  One set doles out measured doses of sterile and cryptic statements that leave us to interpret what they might mean, usually after the explosions.  The other group is spending hours interviewing experts, replaying video and speculating on what is really going on inside the power complex.  This speculation runs rampant on social media as well. In the meantime, locals are told to stay inside, US warships hose themselves off and the Japanese government calls for help from the international nuclear scientist community.

Given this information vacuum, I’m left to speculate on what the vision of exploding buildings, decontamination suited rescuers and stoic government officials really means.  This isn’t about using Twitter or Facebook.  Nor is it about me worrying about nuclear fallout in my community (we’re almost 5000 miles away). It’s about being open, and honestly telling the world what is going on.  Japan is suffering, no doubt.  We suffer with them, and want to do everything we can to help.  At the same time, the world is looking for constant reassurance that the disaster won’t have even worse world-wide implications. Someone in authority needs to start – and continue- an honest and timely dialogue…Now.

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  • http://crisiscommscp.blogspot.com/ patrice cloutier

    The word nuclear conjures up the worst nightmares in all of us. This makes the job of risk and crisis communications related to nuclear that much more difficult.

    The public perception of risk is usually so out of whack with the reality that when a real nuclear incident occurs … authorities are always seen as “obfuscating, hiding some part of the truth, or some such.

    In reality,finding the right balance in conveying meaningful information without adding to collective fears is a big challenge.

  • http://www.ldvfd.org Geoff

    I agree with Patrice, you hear the word ‘nuclear’ and everyone thinks ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’. While these are large scale, terrifying emergencies all the same, they are not the same kind as the nuclear weapons used there.

    Although I barely remember it, I can think back and remember the days and weeks after the Three Mile Island event. I lived in RI at the time and was a good bit removed from where it happened. Hell, I didn’t even know where Harrisburg was at the time. But I was still worried that it would affect me somehow. And it wasn’t for a lack of access to news, my parents watched the news from six to seven every night. It was from fear. Fear that people didn’t want to hear the truth, so the regulators and government withheld it. Nobody wants to hear that there is a problem, they just want to know that it will be alright. So the government is reluctant, I think, to tell the truth, and continues to feed us what we want to hear.

    I think the same is probably happening in Japan. Nobody wants to hear ‘You are going to have to evacuate your homes, and you may not be able to return to them.’ So they aren’t telling the world what is going on. Part of it also, is as you said, the inability to get in to SEE what is going on first hand.

    I would rather be told the truth while I still have time to do something to save myself and my family, than to be fed lip service until it is too late.

    Geoff Burns
    Chief 717 Charlie
    Laytonsville District VFD
    Montgomery County, Maryland
    Twitter – @chief717c and @LDVFD17

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.