What is the risk from a nuclear power plant melt-down?
If you reach for the well known formula of Risk being the product of Likelihood and Consequence…then you are missing something big. That formula is going to give you some idea of hazard, as in the potential harm that can be estimated by science. Risk needs to capture so much more. You need to work out the hazard, then add the outrage.
Outrage is the overall negative human response to an event. How angry are people? How afraid? How upset? How emotionally charged? How suddenly and unusually ready to blockade, write letters, make signs etc? How prepared to change behaviour, take precautions (make no mistake, outrage has its place)?
The major outcomes of Fukushima have little to do with hazard and everything to do with outrage. Consider:
- Japan keeping closed operational reactors, thereby increasing imports of fossil fuels, with increases in GHG emissions, air pollution, and national debt
- Japan forcibly keeping people 80,000 from their homes well beyond the point that this could be good for them
- Germany shutting down its nuclear fleet with resultant growth in fossil fuel use
The typical relationship between hazard and outrage ranges from a very small direct one, to a completely inverse one. Throwing out the jargon: the things that hurt us, and the things that make us take to the street, are rarely, if ever, related and often completely different. Having trouble believing it?
- Smoking: This hazard is huge, killing around 15,000 Australians every year. Outrage? Not that much unless someone blows smoke in your face
- Motor vehicles: This hazard is big again, killing 1,380 Australians last year`. Outrage? Practically nil except in the case of big multiple fatalities
- Air-pollution: Between the outdoor variety driven by fossil fuels, and the indoor variety driven by burning biomass, this is responsible for over 3 million deaths every year. Outrage? Sorry, no. Too-hard basket it seems.
- Nuclear power: Empirically the safest major energy source we have. Outrage? Stratospheric
These two different qualities for understanding risk have enabled professionals to develop different tools for communication depending on what is required.
Where hazard is high and outrage is low, precaution advocacy is deployed. The message is “This is dangerous. We mean it. Pay attention. Take care. Change your behaviour”. It tries to build outrage where it is lacking. A great example of successful precaution advocacy was the effort in Australia to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS . It is used also for smoking and motor vehicle accidents.
Where the hazard and outrage are both high then something is serious, people know it and they are paying attention. That requires crisis communication. Clear information and direction are required. Examples requiring crisis communication include an unfolding bushfire crisis in Australia or, indeed, the early stages of the Fukushima nuclear incident. The situation was serious, the potential for harm was not yet well understood but real, and things were changing fast.
Where outrage is high and hazard is low, the responsible thing to do is called outrage management. When outraged, people can make potentially harmful decisions, like abandoning their homes, treating their fellow citizens abominably, or spending lots of money for no good reason. Good management of this is crucial.
Each situation is distinct. Each has its own professional communication tool kit designed to help people be safe and make sound, informed decisions.
Today, we have a situation. The expert evidence keeps lining up that the radiation levels resulting from the Fukushima Daichi meltdowns is a next-to zero hazard in most places. But people are terrified. Homes and communities remain abandoned. People reportedly have treated their fellow citizens as dirty. Greenhouse emissions are rising where nuclear has been rejected.
The period for crisis communication is over. People could barely get more aware or concerned, so precaution advocacy is not required. The right thing to do now is outrage management.
Unfortunately, from the anti-nuclear movement we keep seeing the opposite. We see efforts that only serve to keep outrage sky-high.
To do this they mis-use the skills of crisis communication and precaution advocacy when neither is required. They fudge the hazard with weasel words and misleading statements. They ignore what happened, tell scary stories about what could have happened and ask us to think the same way. They tell people that they are likely to get sick and die before their time and suggest that they need fear their food supply. They highlight the mistakes, errors and poor decisions made by those in charge, building fear, distrust and unease. They attack actual nuclear experts as corrupt because they work in the industry, instead asking us to listen to people with dubious, if any, knowledge of the matters at hand. They do a great many things that can hold back those most affected by the crisis from moving on with their lives.
UPDATE: In response to this post, Friends of the Earth promptly removed from their Brisbane branch website reference to deeply flawed research suggesting a link between the Fukushima accident and a “spike” in deaths in the United States. I acknowledge and thank Jim Green for making this happen, and acknowledge that he appeared to have already made the request of the Brisbane branch prior to this article being posted. While I am pleased that this has been removed, we all know it can’t be removed from people’s minds who had already read the statement. I am disappointed that FoE have not also seen fit to disclose this mistake on the site and denounce the research as flawed. This would be appropriate. I request that they do so, much in the manner of any media outlet making a correction. I sincerely hope organisations like FoE will take a more responsible approach to such matters in future.
This video shows 10 minutes of blatant abuse of crisis communication and precaution advocacy in action. Watch for the early claim that Fukushima is “worse than Chernobyl”
This conduct by anti-nuclear activists and some environmental organisations is deeply misguided and, in the case of those who really know what they are doing, it is just plain low. To compound people’s terror for a political end with no scientific backing is reprehensible. This compounded fear, driven by an ignorance of the true hazard, has proven to be a major long-term health impact of Chernobyl, and Fukushima is shaping up the same way.
This video gives the views and findings of actual experts. The challenge of risk communication and outrage management is to bring people to a position where they are prepared to take in this type of information.
The outrage we have seen post-Fukushima was inevitable based on underlying ignorance and dread of radiation, and the mainstream media’s hunger for sensationalism. It was then compounded by poor showings by TEPCO and the Japanese Government in their crisis communication and revelations of inadequate planning.
But make no mistake. The breadth, severity and longevity of the outrage we have seen is no accident. It is, in part, strategy. Building outrage through tried and true techniques is a known, understood and practiced part of activism.
It needs to be called out, named and denounced loudly, clearly and often. They are doing harm. It is, in a word, outrageous.