Risk and the Fukushima 50

I sure can’t figure out what is happening now at the nuclear power plants in Japan. Does anyone really know? While chasing the treadmill belt this early a.m. I saw a number of TV stories on several networks. Many contradictory. All confusing. And it doesn’t appear that U.S. government officials are viewing this exactly eye-to-eye with their counterparts in Japan.

And this is not a criticism of any of the reporters who are trying to cover this story. All they can do is report information that is provided to them — and then try to add clarification and context from “experts” who may or may not have a personal or professional axe to grind about nuclear power.

I also know from personal experience while in corporate PR at Goodrich that a situation that involves risk — let’s say a chemical spill — is the most difficult to manage from a communications standpoint, especially when the health and safety of employees and the public is involved.

Why? You can never say with complete certainty that there is no risk — and no potential for harm. And at that point you are left with trying to put the amount of risk into some context — doesn’t exceed federal regulations or whatever, none satisfying to the media, employees and their families or the public.

But the keys are to respond as quickly as you can — and as honestly and completely as you can while having some genuine empathy for those who are at risk.

Not sure that the Japanese government or the owners/operators of the nuclear power plants have done that up to this point. Consider this post on The Daily Beast, “Nuclear Crisis: Americans in Japan Frustrated by Government.”

And here’s a report from ABC News, “Japan Nuclear Crisis: High Radiation Hampers Efforts to Cool Fukushima Reactors.”

Let’s hope and pray that this doesn’t lead to a nuclear disaster in Japan. And that may depend in large measure now of the work — and heroism — of the workers who have remained inside the nuclear plant — the Fukushima 50.

Consider this story from ABC News: “Outpouring of Tears and Prayers for Japan’s Heroes: The Fukushima 50.”

There was an outpouring of concern and prayers today for the “Fukushmima 50,” the band of volunteer workers who have stayed behind at Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors to try prevent a catastrophe for the country.

“My dad went to the Nuclear Plant. I never heard my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive,” read a tweet by Twitter user @nekkonekonyaa.

“My husband is working knowing he could be radiated,” said one woman. He told her via email, “Please continue to live well. I cannot be home for awhile.”

An email from the daughter of a Fukushima 50 volunteered was shared on national television and said, “My father is still working at the plant — they are running out of food…we think conditions are really tough. He says he’s accepted his fate…much like a death sentence…”

The nearly 200 workers are rotated in and out of the danger zone in groups of 50, taking turns eating and sleeping in a decontaminated area about the size of an average living room.

“They are probably drinking cold water and eating military style packages,” said Michael Friedlander, who worked in crisis management at similar American nuclear plants. “It’s cold, it’s dark, and you’re doing that while trying to make sure you’re not contaminating yourself while you’re eating.”

Their mission is called “feed and bleed.” They feed seawater onto the reactor to keep it cool, while steam bleeds away the heat.

These workers are aware that their lives are on the line, but they’re equally aware of what is at stake.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty they are absolutely committed to doing whatever is humanly necessary to make these plants in safe condition, even at the risk of their own lives,” said Friedlander.

Helicopter pilots are also risking their health, flying into high radiation levels to dump cooling water on the reactors and give back up to the emergency workers in the plant.

Those are some people who know about risk.

And about heroism.

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3 responses to “Risk and the Fukushima 50

  1. My Dad worked with nuclear cleanup efforts in the US. This was his take yesterday: “exposed rods are very bad.” One of the things that the US and the Japanese government are disagreeing on is whether the rods at the reactor have been exposed (without being covered with water) and if so, how long. That would change the extent of the radiation leaked into the environment.
    Those men going in to fix the reactor leaks are heroes. In Chernobyl, the government did not tell its workers how dangerous their efforts were; at least these workers are aware and allowed to make their own decisions about what they want to risk and why. I would call them brave beyond belief.

    • Jeannine,

      Thanks for your comment and the perspective shared by your father. Those still working at the plants are heroes. No question about that.

  2. The Western media calls them the “Fukushima 50”. In Japan they’re called Samurai of Fukushima.

    http://tokyo5.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/fukushima50/

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