Japan’s nuclear threat: The danger of information gaps

Naoto Kan pretty much captured what the world has been thinking when he reportedly asked Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) executives “What the hell is going on?” Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that the country’s prime minister lashed out at the company’s officials over the lack of answers and information about the increasingly dire situation at the Fukushima reactors.

Kan’s frustration is shared by many—including reporters, who have complained about the vague and sometimes inaccurate information officials are releasing; nuclear experts, who say the question of how much radiation is escaping isn’t being answered; and of course, the Japanese people, who despite their admirable resilience and calm response to the tragedy are experiencing rising anxiety over the threat of nuclear disaster and the lack of credible information from the government.

But in Kan’s case, the irritated questioning suggests far more, revealing a lack of coordination and communication between two sets of leaders for whom the need for a productive relationship is difficult to overstate. The Financial Times’ Michiyo Nakamoto puts it well: Not only did Kan’s outburst lay bare the rising tensions between Kan’s administration and Tepco officials, “it also added weight to one of the most worrying aspects of a five-day crisis that could make or break the future of nuclear power in the world’s third largest economy: the sense that the prime minister and his hard-pressed administration are not fully in control.”

In other words, both sides have more at stake than the extraordinarily difficult task of averting catastrophe—which, one hopes, is the only outcome currently on the mind of both sides. But for Tepco’s leaders, losing the public information battle could exact lasting damage on the future of nuclear power in Japan. And for Kan, doing the same could severely undermine an administration that was extremely weak even before the tragic crisis in Japan began to unfold.

Kan was understandably angry that Tepco failed to immediately report an explosion Saturday to the government. The news was shared with them an hour after it happened, and Kan has said he learned about it from television. The timing was particularly bad, the FT’s Nakamoto reports, because Kan was speaking with opposition politicians at the time and made no mention of it, giving his opponents an opening “to question his grasp of the situation and his leadership.”

The two sides said Tuesday they would be creating a joint crisis committee, which would be composed of both government and Tepco representatives and would fall under the leadership of Kan. That’s a move in the right direction for resolving the first issue, helping the two sides to share information fully with each other.

But they cannot stop there. Kan’s administration, in conjunction with Tepco, must then make sure they’re sharing information fully with the public. NPRreports that research done for the Department of Homeland Security by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton says that in the event of a potential nuclear disaster, 80 percent of people want to know everything—good and bad, without any sugarcoating. Everything accurate, that is—once you give out incorrect information, a Hill & Knowlton consultant warns, “there’s  no way to break through the rumor and chatter out there."

The desire to withhold information that might cause panic may be a strong one for many leaders. But giving people reliable, credible, unchanging information—and all of it that they reasonably can—will be the only way Kan and Tepco can win the public information battle before them. And to do that, they must find a way to work together.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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