Foreign Policy Blogs

What If?

This week has not been about nuclear weapons or arms control, but about controlling three wildly malfunctioning units at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, damaged following last Friday’s devastating 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.  The operators of the plant in Sendai, just near the epicenter of the huge quake, found themselves racing against time and the excessive heat of three fissioning reactor cores to replace water that was no longer covering them.  The danger was that one or more of the units would suffer a full core melt leading to a “China Syndrome” in which the molten core of the reactor eats through the bottom of the containment vessel and into the surrounding environment.  It is also a bad movie starring Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda which envisions the same scenario, but with better hair.

The sequential and, at times, contemporaneous failures at the plant, were caused by not one but two improbable events occurring one right after the other – the huge earthquake followed by the huge tsunami.  The damage done most significantly by the latter led to a chain of events which resulted in a “beyond design basis” accident.  This led to the Japanese government rating the events at Fukushima a 5 on the IAEA’s international nuclear event scale.  To put this into perspective, the worst civilian nuclear power accident in the U.S., at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, was also rated a 5.

I do not need to re-hash what countless pundits, analysts and experts of varying levels of knowledge (if I hear the name “Chornobyl” one more time, I may scream) have tirelessly opined in every media outlet out there.  What I would like to highlight is the one thing that I didn’t hear much about during this action-packed week: the quality, accuracy and frequency of information being conveyed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government to the people of Japan and to the world. 

What, you might ask, does this have to do with nuclear weapons, nonproliferation and arms control, the subjects of this blog?   Because the quality of information conveyed by a government to the population impacted by a major catastrophic event applies in the aftermath of another not all that improbable but equally frightening prospect: the use of a radiological dispersion device or, even more catastrophically, a nuclear weapon.  That is, what if our efforts to secure and ultimately get rid of nuclear weapons and to control their technologies and materials fail?  What if a non-state actor – a terrorist group or radical religious sect – or a government such as Syria or Iran backs up its rhetoric and actually acquires and uses an RDD or nuclear weapon on a civilian population?

In this nightmarish case, one of the most critical things a government must do is communicate accurately, honestly and on a timely basis the actual risk to the public and any relevant information about the event itself.  This is no different from what has been required this past week in Japan.  But, if the way the Japanese government and TEPCO communicated to the public was any indication of what might occur should an RDD or nuclear weapon be detonated anywhere in the world, we are in serious trouble.  It was something they got wrong this week, adding to the confusion, hysteria and panic about the events unfolding at Fukushima, compounded by the destruction resulting from the earthquake and tsunami themselves.

In a piece entitled “Disclosure Was Also a Problem at Three Mile Island”, Alex Roarty wrote in the National Journal this week about the public disclosure issue surrounding the events unfolding at Fukushima and comparing them to those during the Three Mile Island crisis.  He quoted Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, governor during TMI, who said that the “immediate aftermath of the March 1979 accident was filled with misinformation that helped fuel public panic.”  The misinformation was the result of a number of things, including an alleged coverup by the utility operating TMI, as well as the lack of knowledge about nuclear energy more generally.  Even when the facts were known the government struggled, Roarty wrote, to communicate them.  Thornburgh’s Lt. Governor at that time, Bill Scranton, recalled that candor and identifying one spokesperson to do the communicating was the best policy when dealing with the public.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme choses.

While the U.S. and Japanese governments got the communications thing wrong, the U.K. government, in a radiological event, actually got it right.  The incident was the poisoning of Russian whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko with Polonium-210, a dangerous alpha-emitter, allegedly by FSB agents at the direction of the Kremlin.  Following his death in November, 2006 and discovery of the lethal dose of polonium-210 in his body, the British authorities retraced Litvinenko’s steps following the fateful meeting which led to his poisoning.  This was a critical part of the investigation to find the culprits as well as to identify others who may have been exposed to radiation around that time and to remediate any contamination at the places Litvinenko visited after ingesting the polonium.

As with anything related to things radiological or nuclear, the British public could have easily reacted with alarm and panic once they found out what had killed Litvinenko.  Some actually referred to the incident as one of radiological terror.  But the British public did not panic or overreact. Why?

A UK Cabinet Office emergency response and recovery study related to the Litvinenko case stated that the Westminster City Council’s communications strategy “proved very effective throughout, having been carefully coordinated with the other agencies. The importance of a clear and effective communications strategy cannot be overstressed.”

So, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant catastrophe, we must once again underscore, as we did after TMI, and as we did after September 11th, that honest communication with the public, in addition to identification of one knowledgable spokesperson to do the communicating, is one of the few things a government can do to limit the damage in the aftermath of a catastrophe, even one that involves nuclear or radiological material.  What is it going to take until governments get this right?



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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