The alarm sounds. Something has happened at the nuclear power plant. Managers and government look at one another and ask: “What do we tell the public”?
Risk communication is one of the most important challenges of emergency management. Past nuclear accidents have shown that bad communication practices can result in huge consequences to society and loss of human lives. Despite vast amount of research on the topic of risk communication, in practice it is still often limited to simply educating the public about risks.
PhD candidate Yevgeniya Tomkiv has examined what happens when nuclear emergencies happen, and how media, practitioners and the public respond.
“My aim has been to offer a more holistic understanding of the risk communication in emergency preparedness that emphasizes the relationships between the key actors,” she says.
Media representation and stakeholder involvement
Tomkiv has investigated media representation of radiological risks and compliance with recommendations; public needs and concerns in radiological emergencies; and the value and quality of stakeholder involvement. As result of these investigations, she identifies several factors that could improve communication in nuclear emergency preparedness. These factors include listening to people to increase our understanding of their concerns and perspectives and engaging them in the decision-making processes.
Hearing, not just listening
A well-known challenge is that both researchers and managers often work under assumptions of what they think public concerns and needs are.
“There are many considerations to make,” Tomkiv comments.
“Are the messages appropriate? Are the communication channels adequate, and are people using them the way we assume they do? Are we using the right language, and is the information we give understood as intended?”
She continues with explaining that there is also more research to be done on the connection between media coverage and public risk perception.
“There are too many assumptions. We need to investigate in more detail how people would, or did, respond to the information they received through media.”
Flawed coverage of Fukushima
Tomkiv has examined the media coverage of the Fukushima accident. She found that media reported several misinterpretations and misrepresentations of radiological risks. There was confusion about measurement units, what they represented, and how they related to each other.
Comparisons used were not the ones recommended and were not always helpful or correct in the context of the information presented.
“Health effects were rarely discussed and, when they were mentioned, these were almost always related to very high doses of radiation that were not relevant for Fukushima,” Tomkiv says.
There were also several mistakes and misrepresentations of radiological risks, such as comparison with norms that did not exist, or that were not correct in that context.
“For example, one article compared seawater levels with drinking water standards. Scientifically, that makes no sense, it is like comparing apples and oranges.”
Where are the stakeholders?
Tomkiv has quantified the effect of dialogue and discussion versus one-way communication. Her results showed that discussions were more useful than one-way information provision.
“Participants deemed that collaborative deliberation contributed significantly to knowledge gaining, networking, involvement and problem solving than information provision.”
However, the results also showed that engagement is often dependent on active individuals that see the value and importance of engagement and common deliberation on issues and will show initiative.
Tomkiv concludes that there is a lack and need of stakeholder involvement in nuclear emergency preparedness. This is easier said than done.
“There is a clear challenge of how to get people to participate in stakeholder engagement when it is not part of their immediate tasks.”
“Furthermore, there is a need for institutions to recognize importance of social aspects, adopt stakeholders as a legitimate partner and be critical and reflexive about their activities and practices.”
Knowledge and trust
Tomkiv has also carried out scenario-based focus group discussions with Norwegian participants. In these, the partakers were presented with two scenarios leading to deposition of radionuclides on Norwegian mainland. She identified two main factors that heavily influenced the public’s relationship to emergency actors: knowledge and trust.
With regards to knowledge, the people in the focus groups had very little.
“The majority of participants in my study had no idea that there was any preparedness for radiological accidents in Norway. They did not know who is responsible for the preparedness, or where to go for information in the case of a nuclear incident.”
Not unexpectedly, trust levels towards authorities and official institutions among Norwegians were high.
“However, the participants appeared to trust more in the intentions of the authorities to act for the public’s best, rather than their competence to deal with an emergency situation,” Tomkiv comments.
Change the mindset
“We need to change the way we think about communication to focus on more dynamic social networks it should create and support and embrace the complexities,” Tomkiv says.
The results of her research will contribute to development of better communication strategies that focus on the quality of the relationships between the different actors in emergency preparedness actors.
“In the future, I hope to contribute to increasing our societal resilience with regards to potential future nuclear accidents.”