Watching the developments after the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I have been frustrated by the reporting of the problems at the nuclear reactor plant at Fukushima.
The thing that frustrated me the most was the loose language used in describing the reactors and their various problems. Let me highlight two examples.
1) There is a clear distinction between a reactor and a storage pond. One is used to generate electricity . The other is used to store fuel that has been used. The former is a highly designed containment vessel designed to withstand pressures, temperatures, nuclear activity and has many layers of safety system attached. The other is basically a deep swimming pool with a cooling circuit designed to keep the used fuel under controlled conditions, at normal pressures. They are in fact often open to the atmosphere for handling the fuel. (How do I know – I worked in the nuclear industry for six years).
So often, I would hear that there were problems with the reactor when they were really referring to waste fuel storage ponds, and vice versa. In fact it was quite difficult to interpret the news items because their language was so imprecise. So often they would say, they are spraying water on the reactor, when they were spraying water into the cooling ponds. This is a simple lack of understanding of the situation which seemed to be exacerbated by some of the “so-called” experts who added to the confusion.
2) As soon as the problems in the reactors started the only situation that the news was describing was “melt-down”. Now melt down is a specific situation where first the fuel rods burst, the cooling fails, the fuel collects in a pile at the bottom, the reactor overheats (we are still not there yet) and it gets so hot that the active fuel melts the bottom of the containment and also that it breaches teh containment and then starts to enter into the ground beneath the reactor. That is a meltdown. A fuel rod bursting is not.
First this is quite different to Chernobyl where the fuel caught fire and evacuated outwards and upwards because there was no proper containment. Secondly it is the final step in a very long chain of events.
What was happening, it appears, inside the reactor, was that fuel rods were either breaking or burning so that some fuel was escaping their primary containment, the metal sheathing that holds them in place. This is a breach of a fuel rod – not meltdown. The metal has melted, true. It appears that quite a lot of the fuel in one reactor had burst and may well have collected on the bottom.
Separately overheating in one of the ponds caused that fuel to become exposed and also over heat, leading probably to bursting (but this is to be confirmed) and burning which lead to a discharge of isotopes.
None of this detail matters EXCEPT the imprecision of the language of the reporters. They have a responsibility in such circumstances not to scare monger but to be precise in their language and explanations so we can make informed decisions. Too often they failed in that. I found myself going to several sources searching for the precision in the language that I needed to understand the situation. Ill informed scare-mongering and wild speculation on behalf of some parties did little to help.
What is the lesson for us as communicators in an organisation? We have a responsibility to explain things with precision and carefully. Where there are pieces that could be mis-understood, the distinctions between the various pieces need to be made clear.
Of course I am fully aware of the instant sound-bite nature of news reporting. So it is also the responsibility of the people communicating the message to ensure that the implications of imprecise language and scare-mongering or exaggeration.