Beyond Design-Basis Crisis (Communication)

As the Crisis Communication Adviser of the International Atomic Energy Agency, I spent most of the time with my colleagues and the Member States to ensure that we not only identify lessons learnt from the accident at the nuclear power station in Fukushima, but that we really change the way we communicate with the public in such events. Following an unprecedented earthquake and a likewise unprecedented tsunami, in 2011 a chain of events led to the accident that had been declared to be impossible by many before: the failure of all safety arrangements that should prevent the nuclear cores from melting. It was not the first time I came across so called “beyond design-basis accidents” but it was for sure the one that had the biggest impact on me so far. My very personal lesson learnt from this accident is: Whatever risk you are able to think of, is a risk worth to be considered.

Patrick Meschenmoser (Vienna)

IAEA Fact Finding Mission Fukushima, Beyond Design Accidents, Worst Case
Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA

Now, whenever I advise companies or governments in crisis communication and hear “This is an unrealistic scenario!” or “This is so unlikely, we don’t have to include that in our risk map!”, I have this strange sting in my neck and I have to think of Fukushima. Don’t get me wrong, my primary mission as a crisis communication consultant is to prepare our clients to effectively communicate with the public in the most efficient way possible whenever they face an abnormal situation. Of course, when we draw the risk map, we look at the likelihood of events and make sure we do not plan for an attack of green Martians as a worst case scenario. As I spent many years both in the public and the private sector, I know very well about the need to keep a reasonable ratio between the assumed risk exposure and the budget for crisis preparedness. However, crisis preparedness arrangements that do not consider a possible worst case scenario, even a very unlikely one, are not worth the money spent, for there is one thing every emergency manager knows: Over time, Murphy’s Law applies.


So, whenever someone tells you, that something is negligible or not worth thinking of, kindly ask them to google “Fukushima” and look at the 1254 pages of the IAEA’s Fukushima Daiichi Accident Report that summarize the lessons learnt from an accident that was not supposed to happen. It is this scrutiny and the will to make sure that something like this never happens again, that makes the nuclear industry so safe in general. Hopefully, others will learn these lessons as well. And as for crisis communication: Always remember that it usually doesn’t cost you a single penny more to prepare your communication arrangements for the real worst case scenario instead for a more convenient one. It’s simple: You can always downscale your response from what you have trained and from what you are prepared for, but if you have to upscale to something completely unexpected…good luck. To have considered the worst can make all the difference and save your organization a lot of money down the road, sometimes even its existence.