Research Paper: Crisis Communication in the Fukushima Disaster

Heather Haynsen
Prompt 2: Crisis Communication: Crisis Planning
February 17, 2019

Part One: Executive Summary

Role of Emergency Manager in a Crisis
During a crisis, the role of the emergency manager is to act as the central hub for communication. Emergency managers coordinate and delegate with partners to ensure that all actions occur as necessary (FEMA, n.d.). Acting as the main point of contact is extremely important, as those involved in a crisis need a single source of truth to ensure that all plans and communications run as smoothly as possible. The emergency manager follows existing emergency management and crisis communication plans put into place by governmental and corporate organizations as possible.

Furthermore, emergency managers follow several guiding principles. According to FEMA, these are to be: Comprehensive, Progressive, Risk-driven, Integrated, Collaborative, Coordinated, Flexible, and Professional (2007, p. 4). According to the CDC, these are: Be first, Be right, Be credible, Express empathy, Promote Action, and Show respect towards all audiences (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, p. 2). While these governmental bodies may seem to disagree on their guiding principles, the spirit of both are overwhelmingly similar in the professionalism and compassion they demand. As the go-to person for crisis-related questions, the emergency manager must exude all of these traits to help mitigate any panic or fear from the public.

Incident Overview
On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced two distinct natural disasters that quickly escalated into a nuclear incident and later, into an agricultural incident. First, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the largest to ever hit Japan, occurs north of Tokyo on the island of Honshu (CNN). The earthquake triggered a tsunami with record-breaking 30-foot waves. Despite being the best prepared nation in the world in the face of earthquakes or tsunamis (Foster), the magnitude of these on March 11 overwhelmed the nation’s infrastructure. As of 2018, “the combined total of confirmed deaths and missing is more than 22,000” (CNN).

The tsunami caused immediate damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and residents from an increasingly larger radius around the plant are evacuated. On March 15, Japanese officials placed “restriction orders of food supplies such as contaminated vegetables and milk, and tap water intake” due to radiation leaks (Hirakawa et al.). One month after the tsunami, Japan’s nuclear agency declares a “Level 7 event, the highest level, signifying a ‘major accident’ (CNN). All of Japan’s nuclear reactors are taken offline and the parts of Honshu that still have power experience rolling blackouts as nuclear officials struggle to contain worsening crisis that has come to be known as the Fukushima Disaster (Ibid).

In the extended aftermath of the disaster, unknown quantities of contaminated groundwater leaked into the Pacific Ocean, Fukushima workers have been diagnosed with cancer, three executives in charge of the Fukushima Daiichi plant were indicted on charges of professional negligence, and atmospheric readings from inside some of the Fukushima reactors indicate increased radiation (Ibid.). Officials estimate that fully decommissioning the Fukushima plant could take up to 40 years (Amadeo).

Part Two

Risk and Crisis Identification
The 2011 Japan tsunami presented a number of risks and crises occurring simultaneously. A risk is the known possibility of loss happening from a given situation, such as loss of life and infrastructure damage due to earthquakes. Risks can be foreseen and mitigated, such as earthquake preparedness drills and strong building regulations. A crisis, however, is a risk that’s already happened. The 8.9 magnitude earthquake overwhelmed most of the nation’s preparedness and left thousands injured or homeless.

First and foremost, the crises occurring simultaneously during the Fukushima Disaster were the displacement and death of thousands of Japanese residents, and loss of power throughout Honshu, coupled with billions of dollars in structural damage from the earthquake and its corresponding tsunami and aftershocks. The Fukushima power plant also experienced a crisis due to the tsunami, with the loss of backup power, the explosion of Unit 1, subsequent explosion of Unit 3, and lethal doses of radiation detected onsite (Power Technology).

The risks on top of these crises were mostly related to the Fukushima power plant: radiation exposure for employees and residents, and contamination of nearby agriculture, drinking water, and the Pacific Ocean. Outside of the Fukushima zone, Japanese officials ran the risk of not being able to properly care for their displaced citizens, and the risk of economic collapse due to loss of productivity and the investment required to rebuild.

Audience Type
Although the Fukushima Disaster drew widespread international attention with many countries offering aid, the most important audience for crisis and risk communication were the Japanese people affected. As the CDC repeatedly points out: “It is important to remember that at the center of any crisis are those individuals, groups, and communities most directly affected. All disasters are local” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, p. 30).

There are several distinct audience groups within the affected population. First, people who have been displaced or injured and do not know what to do. Second, people who are currently in shelters. Third, people who are looking for missing loved ones. Fourth, people who want to help others in some way. And finally, people who are not personally affected but who seek information. All of these audience groups can be applied to any of the crises or risks.

Crisis Assessment for Global Population
The initial crisis communication framed the earthquake and tsunami as devastating for Japan, but focused on rescue efforts and mentioned Japan’s extensive preparedness (Fackler). Initial reports fail to mention Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, perhaps because the cooling systems at Fukushima did not fail until March 12 (CNN).

As the crisis progressed, messaging evolved to focus almost solely on the Fukushima Disaster. Other countries who were initially involved in aid or search and rescue operations, became more heavily involved at this point. For example, on March 17 the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified to United States Congress about the health of Fukushima’s reactors (CNN). With an estimated “five million tons of debris” swept offshore by the tsunami and an unknown about of contaminated groundwater leaked from Fukushima, all countries bordering the Pacific Ocean became directly affected by this crisis as well.

Japan’s standard earthquake and tsunami messaging worked as effectively as possible. Residents knew they had 30 minutes before the tsunami hit, so although they knew immediately after the earthquake, that was not realistically enough time for everyone to evacuate. However, there was a large failure in crisis communication related to the Fukushima Disaster. TEPCO, the company running Fukushima, knowingly withheld information and with the help of the Japanese government, prioritized reassuring the population “and conveyed information in drips and drabs,” instead of following any of the recommended principles of emergency management (Yilmaz).

These large errors in crisis communication reverberated locally and globally. The Japanese government took five days to assemble a joint crisis management team that ideally should have been laid out in a crisis communication plan (Yilmaz). Furthermore, the government lost trust while failing to communicate clearly or comprehensively. Increasing the Fukushima evacuation radius several times sent a message that “the situation is aggravating gradually … and getting out of control” (Ibid.). Although all crises are local, the Fukushima Disaster affected other countries, and none received timely or accurate information.

The Japanese government treated the Fukushima Disaster more like a risk than a crisis. Risk management focuses on “assessing potential unacceptable risks and finding ways to avoid or reduce them,” which is what happened with the increasing evacuation radius and withholding information to mitigate public panic (HWAO Consulting). However, crisis management focuses on “larger risks … on the necessary communication to employees, customers, government and other key stakeholders – communication before, during and after the occurrence” (Ibid.) Changing the messaging strategy to crisis communications forces a confrontation of issues being faced by the public, which raises the perceived threat level and promotes action among all stakeholders.

Message Strategy
The most important element of a crisis communication plan is simply to have one, and that is what was lacking with the Fukushima Disaster. An effective crisis communication plan assigns a formal crisis communication and response team, “clearly identifie[s] team roles and responsibilities,” and explains how information will be shared with internal and external stakeholders (Phelps). As TEPCO and the Japanese government took five days to assemble their team, these principles would have helped them immensely.

However, a well thought-out plan is only effective if it is regularly updated and the parties involved are trained on what the plan entails. The Japanese are effective at earthquake and tsunami preparedness because it is practiced throughout their society from an early age. Advanced preparation from TEPCO and the Japanese government would have made an immense difference the safety of everyone involved.

Furthermore, with such a dire crisis, all modes of media must be included. Social media is an absolute must in modern crisis communication. Especially in a crisis with such widespread power and communication outages, every single avenue of communication should be explored in order to reach as many people as possible. Posting crisis communication updates to social media allows people in a disaster zone to see and share real-time information, and they “will often repost and retweet official messages” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, p. 49).

Posting official crisis communication on social media also helps mitigate any rumors or false information that may be posted by other parties. A robust social media monitoring program is applicable to any crisis and becomes more important the larger the crisis.

If the Fukushima Disaster happened today, I would focus on the world’s most popular social media websites: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (Lua). The Japanese also use a social networking application called LINE that would be an excellent starting point for local language communications (Graham). Four social media platforms may seem like overkill in addition to traditional crisis communication modes like radio, television, word of mouth and physical signage, but reaching the largest number of people possible with the most timely and accurate information is the most important aspect of crisis communication.

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Phelps, R. (n.d.). The Four Elements of Effective Crisis Management. Retrieved February 14, 2019, from

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