After a gigantic
earthquake and a devastating tsunami, Japan now has a nuclear crisis which is
becoming a case study in bad crisis management. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
power plant disaster may overshadow the 1984 Union Carbide Bhopal chemical
leak, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill or last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf
of Mexico as a textbook example of what not to do.

This is not just
Japan’s problem. A cloud now hangs over the future of nuclear power throughout
the “Pacific Ring of Fire” earthquake zone as locals stage traditional and
online protests against nuclear energy.

A few
organizations will need to adopt new ways of operating after this situation is
brought under control. The regulatory authority responsible for nuclear power
plants in Japan needs to reassess how to build plants in an earthquake zone. (It
appears that the design and location of the Fukushima Daiichi plant was just
plain wrong).

The Tokyo Electric
Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, and the Japanese government need
to change the way they release critical information in a crisis. (The New
York Times
has documented the failure of communications.) The flow of
information has been slow and vague. In the West we’d describe it as stonewalling.
Possibly for the first time in Japanese history, people started seriously
questioning those in positions of authority. They felt they had a right to get
accurate and truthful updates in a timely manner and that it was not
forthcoming.

Japanese authorities
also need to assess how they make decisions in a crisis. It appears that much
of the decision-making, at least at first, placed a higher value on profit than
it did on human life. For example, the
Wall Street Journal
claims that TEPCO delayed using sea water to cool the
reactors because it was concerned about the damage salt water would do to its assets.
At least 80 people’s lives (those working in the plant at the time of the
accident) are at risk because of this decision, plus others involved in the
response later on.

This points to a
bigger problem in crisis management, worldwide and not just in Japan: lack of
training in ethical decision-making in emergencies. Crisis-preparedness
training normally focuses on technical details of how to fix problems and how
to communicate with the media.

But executives are
poorly prepared for making ethical decisions under pressure. When lives are at
stake – particularly as they are in a potential nuclear meltdown – you can’t stage
an escalated response. You must have an ethical response. You should be
throwing everything you have at the situation from the beginning.

Japan is not
facing a Chernobyl-style full meltdown. All the reactors at Fukushima have been
successfully shut down and the focus has been on cooling the plant. The worst
case scenario for Fukushima Daiichi is probably the Three Mile Island nuclear
accident of 1979. This may mean a contaminated area of 30 kilometres around the
plant. This is not great news – but it is not bad for a serious nuclear
accident.

Could the outcome
have been better? Possibly – if sea water had been used at the outset of the
crisis. But we’ll have to wait for the final report following the inevitable
investigation.

What does this
mean for the future of nuclear energy, especially in earthquake-prone regions?
China, which is part of the Pacific Rim of Fire and has experienced its own
devastating earthquakes (Tangshan in 1976 and Sichuan in 2008), plans to build a
staggering 40 new nuclear power plants by 2015. Since the incident in Japan Beijing
has halted approvals for these pending an investigation into its own safety
standards. But the plants will almost certainly proceed. Asia and the rest of
the world need energy to sustain economic growth and development. Nuclear power
is the best source because, accidents like this notwithstanding, it is much cleaner
than oil and coal which contribute substantially to global warming.

Abandoning nuclear
energy would be like refusing to cross roads because you might be run over. If
you know the risks you can manage them. The nuclear energy industry now has a
better understanding of the risks as a result of this unfortunate accident. (Here’s
a stock tip: buy uranium mining and nuclear energy shares now. While prices
have fallen close to 30 per cent since the tsunami, they will surely rise again.
The future is in nuclear energy.)

Lessons will be
learned about the design and location of power plants. To start with, they
won’t be placed too close to the coast or major rivers. It wasn’t the
earthquake itself that created the problems, but the flooding from the tsunami.

Lessons also will
be learned about communications during an Asian crisis. The basic principles
are: communicate often; communicate clearly; communicate truthfully; and communicate
transparently. This may be more difficult in Japan. Japanese, like Chinese, is
not a direct language; it is much more nuanced and intuitive than European
languages. (At one point a Japanese official dealing with the crisis apologized
publicly for causing “bother”. In the context of normal Japanese interaction
this might have made sense; in a nuclear crisis it seemed out of touch with
reality.) Japan’s agony may teach other Asian nations how to convey information
quickly and accurately.

As I tell my clients
in crisis situations: stop talking and start communicating. What the public
expects – and has a right to expect – is the truth. But the most important lesson
of the last ten days should be to incorporate training on ethical decision
making into crisis preparedness training. People must come before profits –
always and unconditionally.


Alistair Nicholas is Executive Vice President, Asia Pacific, with
public relations firm Weber Shandwick and its public affairs arm Powell Tate.
He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the China Global Risk Council. The
views expressed herein are entirely those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect those of his employers or their clients, or of any other organizations
with which he is associated. Alistair Nicholas has represented nuclear energy
companies and companies involved in the nuclear energy supply chain. He blogs
about China, reputation management, and everything else at Off The Record.

Alistair Nicholas

Based in Sydney, Australia, Alistair Nicholas is an internationally experienced business and communications consultant who has advised multinational corporations and national and state governments on a...