Central Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers railed against the state health department in 1979 when, less than 24 hours after Three Mile Island began releasing nuclear reactor coolant into the surrounding environment, officials told consumers not to drink the local milk. The farmers had a point: there was no evidence that the radioactive isotope iodine-131 had fallen to the grass their cows ate or accumulated in the milk they produced. But health officials insisted that taking precautions meant warning the public before something bad happened, even before collecting data.
Two days later, health officials said their tests had found no sign of radioiodine, but that it was still probably working its way through the cows’ digestive systems, and so milk should be avoided. A few days after that, officials said they were surprised to report still no trace of radiation. Again, though, they said: don’t drink milk. Days later, another test and another warning. Until finally almost two weeks into the accident, they sent out a fifth news release, saying, in effect: “We have now determined that there is no iodine-131 in the local milk. We apologize to the dairy industry for the stigma. Local milk is safe to drink.” And mad as dairy farmers were about losing two weeks of sales, their local industry rebounded completely along with the milk’s reputation.
By contrast, milk from Fukushima will likely be suspect for many years to come.
It’s not just because foodstuffs from that region have in fact tested positive for radioactive isotopes. For one thing, the contamination is so minute that you would have to drink 58,000 glasses of Fukushima milk to raise your lifetime risk for cancer by more than a few percentage points.
But perhaps more damaging in the long run for the farmers and consumers who live near the still-troubled Fukushima Daiichi power plant was the failure of Japan’s leaders to honestly speculate in the past week exactly about what might happen in the days to come.
“In a cliffhanger like this one, what might happen tomorrow is the main story,” said Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant who has been following the crisis closely from his office in Princeton, N.J. His assessment, based on English-language coverage: the Japanese government and the utility company that runs the crippled plant may have mishandled the nuclear crisis so badly that it’s adding a psychic toll to the already-devastating human and material burdens that the Japanese public is dealing with in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.
“As you watch the coverage day after day, you have to conclude that they are terribly under-prepared and haven’t a clue what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Sandman. “Or, and this is far likelier, they are doing as good a job as they can of guessing what might get worse and what to do to prepare for it and just deciding none of that information should be shared with the public.”
Japanese officials said nothing about drinking Fukushima milk in the week after the earthquake. In fact, local dairies, which had delayed shipments of milk only because of the paralyzed infrastructure, were about to start delivery again just as the government announced the results of its radiation testing. Those tests seemed to have been carried out unbeknownst to the dairies. Since there was no forewarning before the announcement, Japanese citizens heard about it for the first time when the woke up on March 19 to news that food was already contaminated.
If the same thing happened during Three Mile Island, said Sandman, “they still wouldn’t be drinking local milk in Central Pennsylvania nearly 30 years later.”
A basic rule of crisis communications is that early warnings should be dire enough that you’re almost certain to report later that it’s not as bad as was feared. Japanese officials have lost credibility each time they’ve had to tell the public that the disaster is worse than expected said Sandman, who led research into risk communication at Rutgers University for nearly two decades before becoming a fulltime consultant. “They kept either being taken by surprise or letting everyone else be taken by surprise,” he said. “And that’s inexcusable.”
He notes that the state health department’s handling of possible milk contamination was one of the few examples of public officials communicating wisely in the aftermath of Three Mile Island.
Another rule of risk communication is to remember that people generally have good BS-meters for detecting when a source is trying to help them understand by revealing as much of the truth as they possible, and when a source is cherry picking what facts to tell them in order to create a manufactured impression.
Those meters must be beeping like crazy in Japan, where the levels of radiation in food, while still statistically benign perhaps, has become too high to keep comparing to chest X-rays. When the country’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano announced the radiation findings, he couched the health risks in CT scan exposure. A CT scan is a compressed series of X-rays – i.e. much more radiation than a single X-ray – so comparing it to food contamination levels would it make the contamination seem less significant.
“If the government is saying scary things matter-of-factly, then when it says something reassuring, you believe it, because they’ve proven that they are willing to scare you when the facts are scary,” said Sandman. On the other hand, if officials emphasize the reassuring facts and reframe the scary facts to make them sound less grave, people start to sense that what they’re hearing is designed to make them not worry. Which only makes them worry more.
“People do that when they talk to used car salesmen,” said Sandman, “they can do it when they listen to the Japanese government.”