Lessons in outreach to be learned from Japan’s disasters

(warning: this rather lengthy piece may contain personal opinions and has little to do with small-angle scattering. There is a nice bit about graphics, though.)


In the wake of the global public panic following the reporting around the nuclear reactor struggles (as opposed to the expected >15 kilopeople deaths in Myagi prefecture due to the tsunami alone), perhaps it is time for us to consider what we can learn from the way the media and the educated dealt with these developments. For us, it can be used to gain insight into how to communicate with journalists, and we can come up with ideas about what we (the (educated) public) could do better in this situation.

In summary, the following events happened in rapid succession: After the initial strike of an earthquake with its epicenter off the coast of north-east Japan, a tsunami struck the coast of north-east Japan (but fortunately not entering Tokyo Bay), wiping out some villages along the coastline and causing the large majority of the casualties of the event. Trains went missing and an airport was flooded (mind you, they have an enormous density of airports in Japan so this was not too surprising). Efforts are currently ongoing to retrieve the people marooned, and to reestablish supply-lines of food, water and electricity.

Focusing on the reactors, during the earthquake all reactors in affected areas started emergency shutdown procedures, stopping the main fission reaction right away and started cooling down of the reactors. Given that the reactors are of the second generation type, active cooling is required (new generation 3 reactors do not need circulation pumps but can cool by convection instead). Several power plants shut down properly after this event (albeit with some minor issues in some). However, at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (consisting of 6 reactors, three of which were already shut down at the time of the quake), the tsunami which arrived minutes later wiped out the power generators and the external power supply lines. This left only the batteries intact. With the batteries, 8 hours of cooling was achieved, which was not sufficient time to reestablish electrical supply. After failure of the battery power, the reactor temperatures of the previously active reactors started increasing due to residual activity in the fuel rods. At a much slower pace, the temperatures in the fuel storage pools also increased. After some time, efforts started to cool down the reactors and to release the formed steam (as the pressures in the reactors increased upon steam formation). Hydrogen formed by oxidation of the zirconium fuel-rod cladding with steam was released as well, causing explosions in some reactor buildings. After several days of hard work by the plant engineers, the situation is stabilizing with the arrival of power and cooling water from fire engines. A good summary per reactor is provided on a daily basis by the Kyodo news agency (f. ex. Sunday evening, 20th of March). Due to the release of steam and the cooling efforts, some radioactivity in the form of light isotopes (as of iodine and cesium) was released into the surroundings and found in f.ex. foodstuffs. For more detail, check out the Wikipedia page.

The foreign media action during this entire situation was abominable. The Japanese agencies mostly provided “matter-of-fact” updates and regurgitations of press releases from the government and the power organizations (which may also not be perfect, as they have been accused of putting a too positive spin on the news as well). Good sources of Japanese news for English readers are Kyodo, NHK, and to a lesser degree, Asahi Shimbun (updating quite infrequently with old information). Many foreign news sites reported bad and/or sensationalist excerpts instead, fanning the flames of fear and causing people half a globe away to start buying potassium iodine pills and closing down power plants. A compilation of erroneous post-quake reporting can be found here. Opinion pieces on the media behaviour can also be found here, herehere and here, and more generally about their response to the earthquake and tsunami here.

Now, sensibility is returning to some of the stories run by the media. This may be due to the limited public attention span, lack of exciting news and sensational quotes, the skew of news reporting skewing in another direction, or the journalists becoming more well-read on the topic, but I think it may also have to do with the emerging availability of good graphics. There have now been several good graphs to show how the different levels of radiation stack up, f.ex. those here and here. The NY Times also has a good graph showing the progression of detected radiation over time. The BBC has a limited graphical explanation of the course of events. Cooling down of the spent fuel storage pools is shown here, albeit with a superfluous dimension thrown in for no good reason. However, graphs have also been used to instill fear, such as the ones here, here and here (although I cannot understand the graphs in this last one). With these graphs, some perspective can be attained about the scope of the events, but one must be wary of sensationalist graphics popping up as well.

So what can be learned from this? Well, one message is that in such an event, generating graphics about the situation has to be one of the top priorities to all who can. Besides these, voicing a moderate opinion in the face of the extremists has to be considered, as the voice of reason is rarely heard. Now most of us do not have a degree in nuclear physics, reactor design or suchlike, but we can nevertheless offer an educated view to the situation, if we take the time to read the reports and distill the facts from them. While this is risky (Carl Sagan is mildly criticized for speaking outside of his expertise by Ben Goldacre, when he warned of nuclear winters, for example), it is also one of the only ways of educating the general public about science in general. We are hindered in that the public may also not be so interested in science anymore as they were a few decades ago, and this is also a task where academics should come in.

We are “burdened” with the task of promoting science to prevent the rise of pseudoscientific quacks who like to pretend science is difficult and unintelligible save for a very few stuffy people (nutritionists, homeopaths, alternative healers, astrologers, etc. see Goldacre’s book). On top of that, good educators of the public like Carl Sagan and Feynman, who could make academic topics understood by the public have unfortunately passed away, leaving only a few (Richard Dawkins, James Randi) who are getting rather long in the teeth. We need to make science cool once again (because if we do not, the public will not learn anything), and break down science to its basic tenets in order to show that it really is simple what we do (it is the details which is where the years of study come in). That is our homework. If we succeed we gain the prize of having a much more sensationalist-weary public, much less prone to mass panic in the face of a radioactive sneeze.

So, in summary, the public panic is fueled by the media, but also stems from the ignorance of the public and the media on the topic and science in general (the media, however, could employ scientifically trained staff to filter the sensation out). Graphics may be used as part of the solution to educate the public and add perspective, but unless the public is also educated on science, the good graphic may be offset by another sensationalist one. It is up to the academics to interact more with the public to increase scientific understanding.


  1. ” However, graphs have also been used to instill fear, such as the ones here, here and here ”

    You linked to my site as such an example, though you said you do not understand the “graph”.

    If you read the post carefully, it was not written to instill fear, but concern, and a prudent one I might add. The power plant in question already has had one very serious safety violation that went unnoticed and uncorrected for 18 months, despite that fact that it sits close to not one but two fault lines.

    It would seem to me that any reasonably informed person would want regular and independent safety inspections of any nuclear plant like the one I wrote about.

  2. Dear Beth,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and reply to the article. You are right that I inferred the meaning of the graph I did not understand (in particular, this one and this one), and that I assumed they were made to instill fear.

    Having read your article, I see they are mainly intended to emphasize that a degree of prudence is to be taken with these reactors. It may indeed be true that these reactors you speak of are unsafe on account of them having been built close to faultlines, and on the basis of decisions having been made on the basis of profit (which is always a good reason to be wary).

    However, assuming astrology does not work (with there being no solid testable evidence to support astrology, and plenty of evidence to support the opposing hypothesis), the article in question and its graphs only add to the confusion (and thus fear) of the layman audience. In other words, you draw upon an argument of authority (in this case the alleged authority of the planetary positions) to indicate that there is an increased likelihood of an accident happening to unit two. You support your statement with a graph: you claim a higher chance that this reactor will fail based on what is graphically shown. Unfortunately, we can only trust that what you are saying is true in terms of prediction quality (i.e. with an untestable method such as astrology, which draws on authority and obscure interrelations, we have to believe you on your word). My conclusion therefore stands: You use the graph to argue from authority, to add weight to your claims. These claims cannot be tested but only believed, and if they are believed, they indicate that we should be afraid of another failure. Therefore your graphs (albeit indirectly) instill fear. That said, I do hope your work may encourage a closer look into the safety procedures of these reactors you mention, as safety is in need of constant revision. Good luck!

    Lastly, I do not mean to reopen the eternal debate on whether astrology works or not, and certainly not here. I must regrettably ban any discussion in that direction on this site. This argument has been treated by others much better versed in the art of debate. Like Carl Sagan. Any discussions on the matter could be performed on that page instead.

  3. “Lastly, I do not mean to reopen the eternal debate on whether astrology works or not, and certainly not here”

    To use a post about astrology to prove your point and claim that astrology does not work and then to disallow such a discussion is disingenuous if not intellectually dishonest. You, of course, are entitled to your opinion, but do not purport it to be fact, which it is not.

    I stand by my statement that my post was to inspire prudent concern, not fear.

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