Engagement key in Fukushima wastewater saga

In light of recent reports regarding the Japanese government’s plan to release radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean, I feel compelled to respond to the backlash that has ensued.

It is worth noting that my team and I have published an academic article on the matter (Ng, Yoong, and Gong in Health Physics, 2022) and even outlined what responses the Japanese government could take.

Before going into detail into our proposals, let’s understand why there is such a strong opposition toward the Japanese authorities.

The 2012 report by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission provided a comprehensive analysis of the man-made causes of the disaster, leading to widespread belief that the authorities themselves were to blame, rather than seeing it as an accident.

The authorities were criticised for their undesirable leadership qualities in handling the aftermath, including downplaying the risks of building and operating the plant despite having relevant data and information.

Additionally, statements by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) during press conferences were deemed inadequate, and the company was not held fully responsible, even after the accident.

As a result, the authorities have been perceived as lacking empathy and displaying incompetence in their leadership, contributing to the negative perception of their handling of the Fukushima disaster.

Social media platforms have played a significant role in disseminating information, as well as disinformation about the Fukushima disaster and its potential effects on public health.

However, due to the ability of social media to magnify and intensify ideological positions, it has also contributed to a negative perception of the authorities’ decision to release the Fukushima wastewater into the ocean.

The language used on social media has further contributed to building negative perceptions by casting the authorities as authoritarian and neglectful of the long-term ill-effects of their decision.

In many cases, social media has become echo chambers that amplify opposition to the wastewater release decision, further fuelling public distrust and anger towards the authorities.

As such, social media has both helped to disseminate information and has also intensified negative perceptions and opposition to the authorities’ decision-making.

Moving forward, our team have proposed a comprehensive model for risk communication in the context of the Fukushima disaster. Our proposed model emphasises the importance of complete and holistic engagement with various stakeholders, including affected communities, experts, policymakers, and civil society groups.

At the core of our model is the concept of servant leadership, which prioritises the needs and interests of stakeholders over the interests of the authorities.

This approach fosters trust and transparency in the communication process, and helps to address the power imbalances that often exist between the authorities and affected communities.

By adopting a servant leadership approach, the authorities can effectively listen to the concerns and feedback of stakeholders, and incorporate their perspectives into decision-making processes.

This, in turn, can help to build a more collaborative and inclusive approach to risk communication that is better equipped to respond to the needs and concerns of all stakeholders, and ultimately contribute to a more effective and sustainable response to the Fukushima disaster.

To effectively engage with various stakeholders in the Fukushima incident, we proposed that existing “heroes” be employed.

These “heroes” can be individuals such as respected local entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists, journalists, or community leaders.

Their influence over stakeholders can be leveraged to nudge people into supporting or opposing a cause they believe in.

Additionally, opening channels for ordinary people to provide solutions for the treatment of wastewater may yield desirable results.

International dialogues are also important, as the ocean is shared with neighbouring countries such as China, Taiwan, and South Korea, which have not had good relations with Japan. Engagements with local and global communities are therefore vital and indispensable for the successful resolution of the Fukushima incident.

The use of servant leadership is the core in our proposed model. This leadership style is known for being advisory, participative, caring, and egalitarian, which makes it more suitable for addressing public health issues.

In the Fukushima case, we suggest that the servant leader, along with a team of trained researchers, should open accessible and friendly channels for conversations with stakeholders. This will help create the perception that the authorities are being transparent, honest, and taking responsibility for their actions, which is crucial for building trust with the affected communities.

Additionally, we recommend considering the use of “nudge theory” as a tool in risk communication decision-making. This theory suggests that people can be influenced to make certain choices without being forced or coerced. By providing subtle prompts and incentives, decision-makers can encourage stakeholders to take actions that are in their best interest, such as supporting the safe treatment and disposal of Fukushima’s wastewater.

In summary, our proposed model for risk communication in the Fukushima incident involves using servant leadership to create transparent and accessible channels of communication with stakeholders, as well as incorporating nudge theory to influence positive decision-making. By engaging with local and global communities, considering solutions from ordinary people, and opening international dialogues, we can work together to find a peaceful and acceptable solution to this complex issue.

Emeritus Prof. Dr Ng Kwan Hoong is an Emeritus Professor at the Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya. He is a renowned radiation risk communication expert and the recipient of the 2020 Merdeka Award.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.