Controlling information flow in a crisis is crucial to its outcome. So it should come as no surprise that much information received about how the crisis at Fukushima unfolded has been kept away from traditional and social media as long as possible. In the end, however, the truth does come out.
One of my favorite truths this week was the acknowledgment by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that 69 workers who worked at reactor #1 at the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant in March "cannot be found." This means that these individuals, who may have been exposed to high doses of radiation, cannot be located for testing. Was this a case of "sloppy paperwork" or something else? Either way, one wonders how long and why this was kept from the public eye.
While many are no longer surprised to see this sort of thing occurring in Japan, it becomes even less palatable when it happens on the global stage. Take the case of International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) recent decision to hold talks about the Fukushima disaster behind closed doors.
The Fukushima meetings will be closed "because of the highly detailed and technical nature of the drafting work" but summaries of the discussions will be made public. Well, that's good. But why not make the proceedings public in the first place?
One of my favorite blogs here is run by a friend who has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to painting a picture of reality with limited information. But the picture emerging after three months of radiation release is nothing to laugh about. The June 17th edition of Science magazine reports that radioactive cesium (both 134 and 137) has spread over 100 miles from the plant and now affects an area southwest of the reactors with a large pocket of contamination further south to the outskirts of Tokyo.
Safety concerns are not appeased by a lack of clarity. Calls for transparency continue to grow. The government in Fukushima prefecture will begin conducting health checks on two million residents starting at the end of June. This is the result of strong condemnation from residents in the region resulting from limited information since the March 11th quake as to radiation exposure for those living near the stricken facility.
In all fairness, there are honest players in the process who do tell the truth as the truth becomes apparent. The Japan government designates new spots for possible evacuation near the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when radiation levels go beyond internationally recommended benchmarks. And the Japanese government has prohibited entry into a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant and ordered the evacuation of people in designated areas outside the zone where radiation levels surpass such limits. Yet as is often the case, these decisions come much too slowly and only after much pressure is exerted by those in harm's way.
Not telling the truth gives traditional and social media pundits much to write about and makes the pain last longer when it is revealed. Let us hope that more of those with inside knowledge prioritize the people more than they do their entrenched interests.
David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.