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【Feature】Experiences in communication response: From crisis communication in the initial phase after an accident to risk comsmunication

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If the area around you were to descend into panic right now, how would you respond?

A recently published book tackles this question. It is the record of a specialist in radiation exposure who took on the anxiety and confusion of local residents directly after the nuclear disaster of 2011. “The crisis communication we engaged in directly after the accident was probably some of the first of its kind in the world following a nuclear disaster” (from the introduction).

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Residents of Fukushima prefecture were plunged into anxiety and confusion over contamination from radioactive material, which is both colorless and odorless.

After receiving word that, “The way things are now, Fukushima prefecture will fall into panic,” the man who came to explain radiation exposure after a meltdown and its effects on health was Noboru Takamura, a professor at the Atomic Bomb Disease Institute of Nagasaki University.

What is radiation? Radiation exposure? How about the units of measurement called sieverts and becquerels? What are the effects on health? Residents’ anxiety toward radiation exposure turned to dissatisfaction with government, which itself turned to anger. Despite a lack of materials due to the natural disasters and meltdown, Prof. Takamura accepted the request from Fukushima Prefecture and held lectures with nothing but a single microphone. Questions came thick and fast from the local residents, and the question-and-answer portion of his lectures sometimes stretched as long as two hours.

Meanwhile, efforts in Fukushima aside, information coming out of Tokyo was headed on a separate path. Damage to Fukushima’s reputation caused by misinformation, online defamation, the appearance of opposing factions…in all this, there was even a case of a university student from Fukushima having her job offer revoked by a company in Tokyo due to such misinformation.

Prof. Takamura did not give up, though. This was because, despite it being directly after the disaster, he experienced the warmth of the people of Fukushima, who have great consideration for others.

“If we give up the work in Fukushima, those who’ll suffer most are the warm-hearted locals”As residents were becoming panicked, how did a specialist respond and overcome the crisis? His book should be of much use to anyone in a crisis response position at organizations such as governments and companies.

The “Crisis Communication” No One Has Ever Experienced

 In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

Why has this document been released now, eight years after the disaster? Noboru Takamura, the professor at the Atomic Bomb Disease Institute of Nagasaki University who authored it, writes the following.

“In Nagasaki, where I live, people have tended to forget about the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster. On the other hand, we cannot forget the reality that there are still over 40,000 people in Fukushima who are unable to return home.”

He has two reasons for releasing the manuscript: that the reality in Fukushima not be forgotten, and because he was asked to do so by specialists overseas. “For a while, I had been getting requests, particularly from specialists overseas, to put together something about my experience with crisis communication in Fukushima. While it supposedly won’t happen, if there ever is another nuclear calamity somewhere in the world, I hoped that our experiences from eight years ago might be of help.”

Why was a professor from Nagasaki University called to respond to the Fukushima nuclear accident in the first place? This has a profound connection to Prof. Takamura’s area of expertise. Up until now, Prof. Takamura has visited regions of the former Soviet Union contaminated by radiation, such as Chernobyl, a number of times, and is engaged in research on radiation exposure and its effects on health.For this reason, on March 13, 2011, two days after the nuclear accident, five specialists from Nagasaki University went into Fukushima. Word then came to Prof. Takamura, who was gathering information in Nagasaki. Hearing that, “The way things are now, Fukushima prefecture will fall into panic,” Prof. Takamura immediately set out for Fukushima. “I was asked to do a lecture on the very day I arrived in Fukushima, and spoke at Fukushima Medical University on the differences between the Chernobyl meltdown and this one. At the end of my lecture, although I could feel a sense of relief from the staff, one of the attendees called me a goyoh-gakusha(a derogatory term for a scholar beholden to the government). I was surprised, but at the same time, truly got the sense on my first day that things were very bad.”

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

The  lecture at Fukushima Medical University on March 18

 In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

The day after his lecture, March 19, at the request of the Fukushima prefectural government, Prof. Takamura became a “Fukushima Prefecture radiation health risk management advisor.” The core of the book is Prof. Takamura’s records of when he took on the anxiety and confusion of residents while continuing to give lectures throughout Fukushima prefecture during the seven days directly after becoming an advisor.

Facing the anxious and confused residents of Fukushima

When giving a lecture, one typically uses slides and passes out materials. This was directly after a natural disaster and nuclear accident, however. Supplies were at a standstill, and the lecture venue was a gymnasium turned shelter. Thus, all Prof. Takamura had to give his lecture was a single microphone.

“I was relentlessly heckled by participants, who were at peak anxiety and dissatisfaction caused by an utterly unknown experience: a nuclear disaster. While I normally have many opportunities to speak, such as lectures, I was certainly unfamiliar with speaking in an environment of constant heckling and yelling.”

As he continued to give lectures in these extraordinary circumstances, Prof. Takamura slowly came to understand where the dissatisfaction of Fukushima residents was coming from. Despite the constant coverage of the accident on TV programs at the time, no one was explaining what words like “microsievert” even meant.

“I felt it was necessary to give a sense of relief to residents by explaining, in simple terms, what the units of becquerel and sievert were, as they were often being said, as well as what half life meant.”Residents were worried about internal exposure through items such as food and drink, as well as external exposure caused by going outside. Prof. Takamura gave careful responses to each and every person who asked questions about these things. Sometimes, the question-and-answer portion of his lectures stretched as long as two hours. “Wherever I spoke, the anxiety of residents was significant, and sometimes it was expressed as anger. I thought that, if I didn’t take every question, the residents who had come would not be satisfied, and that that would lead to panic.”

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

 In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

A lecture a Taira Gymnasium in Iwaki city on March 20

 In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

As he was going throughout Fukushima, the prefecture’s reputation was being damaged by misinformation. Prof. Takamura heard that a university student who had been hired by a company in Tokyo was asked to promise not to return to Fukushima for three years, and had her job offer revoked. Hearing this, her mother told Prof. Takamura, “I’m proud of my daughter.” “When I heard that, tears just started running down my cheeks. That was the first and last time I cried in Fukushima following the accident.”

The damaging misinformation about Fukushima continued. Prof. Takamura received emails criticizing his efforts in Fukushima, and was flamed online. Despite it all, he never even considered giving up his work.

“It’s because I was able to experience the warmth of so many people by actually going to Fukushima myself. I experienced the warm-heartedness of those in Fukushima, who had gone through an unprecedented disaster and yet had such consideration for others. So I could easily imagine that, if I did give up, those who would be most hurt were the people of Fukushima.”

In the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) operated by the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), I served as one of the Radiation Health Risk Management Advisors for Fukushima Prefecture, overseeing the crisis and risk communication for residents in its municipalities. As part of this work, I was charged with explaining radiation exposure and its health effects, and answering residents’ questions. Based on the lessons learned from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986, when the Soviet government neither disclosed detailed information about the disaster nor provided any crisis communication to residents, Prof. Shunichi Yamashita, my mentor, and I immediately began developing a crisis communication strategy. This is seemingly one of the quickest crisis communication efforts ever made in the world after a nuclear disaster.

Ceremony marking the formation of a comprehensive partnership agreement between Nagasaki University and the village of Kawauchi (April 2013)

 Even now, Prof. Takamura continues to be involved in reconstruction and revitalization efforts in areas affected by the nuclear accident. Reflecting on his crisis communication directly after the accident, he writes the following. “I think the most important thing was resolving to answer every question from residents, and never looking for an easy way out. Having such resolve requires the knowledge to answer any question. Once you have that, how do you face the residents? I think we have to develop the human resources capable of doing such things.”

Books Introduction

Experiences in communication response: 
From crisis communication in the initial phase after an accident to risk comsmunication

A record of the author’s experience, directly after the meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, of engaging in crisis communication and risk communication as a Fukushima Prefecture radiation health risk management advisor, giving explanations to and answering questions on “radiation exposure and its effects on health” from residents in various municipalities throughout Fukushima prefecture.

Release:2019/03/28

Books Introduction

Experiences in communication response: 
From crisis communication in the initial phase after an accident to risk comsmunication

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