Risk Assessment and Communication – both are hard to do well

Emblem of the Prime Minister of Japan

Image via Wikipedia

As we enter week two since the Sendai disasters started, indicators are abundant that these two key elements of an effective response need work. Once again (as was true after the BP Oil Spill last year) the need for objective, trusted assessments and the ability to communicate with responders, media, and the general public come to the forefront because those needs are not being met. Here are two current reports:

Japan pressed to be more transparent as crisis enters second week. CNNwire, March 18, 2011.

Japanese authorities came under fire Friday from within and abroad over the lack of timely information on the unfolding nuclear situation as they battled for a second week to contain the crisis. People near the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are increasingly frustrated, not just with the prolonged fight to curb radioactive emissions, but also the lack of immediate information from authorities, a local government official said.

“Evacuees …are feeling anxious since we are not getting the needed information from the government in a timely manner,” said Seiji Sato, a spokesman for the government of Tamura City, about 20 kilometers from the nuclear facility.

The head of the U.N. atomic agency, Yukiya Amano, pressed the Japanese prime minister to open up lines of communication about the crisis during a meeting in Tokyo. Lawmaker: Japan’s government doesn’t lie Nuclear watchdog under fire over Japan.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan vowed to do as much, according to Japan’s Kyodo News, saying he’d push to make more information available to the international community and release more detailed data about the nuclear situation.

U.S. radiation experts try to decipher reports from Japan. USA TODAY, March 17.

The Japanese government’s radiation report for the country’s 47 prefectures Wednesday had a notable omission: Fukushima, ground zero in Japan’s nuclear crisis. Measurements from Ibaraki, just south of Fukushima, were also
blanked out. Radiation experts in the USA say that the lack of information about radioactivity released from the smoldering reactors makes it impossible to gauge the current danger, project how bad a potential meltdown might be or calculate how much fallout might reach the USA.

Conflicting accounts of the radiation levels emerged in Tokyo and on Capitol Hill. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Wednesday that the radiation detected at the Fukushima plant had fallen steadily over the past 12 hours. But U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chief Gregory Jaczko told a House energy subcommittee earlier in the day that radiation levels at the Fukushima plant were “extremely high.” The chief of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told reporters he will visit Japan to obtain “firsthand information” about the crisis and prod the Japanese government to provide more.

Given accurate readings, U.S. experts can develop computer models of radiation released from the crippled reactors, factoring in prevailing winds, altitude and rainfall, said Owen Hoffman, a radiation expert from SENES Oak Ridge Inc., a consulting firm that calculated risks from Cold War nuclear tests.

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