Nuclear disaster news: a case study.
Public engagement 25th March 2016
Marika Hietala, Ph.D. researcher from The University of Sheffield, discusses and compares how the news of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was distributed in West Cumbria (UK) and Satakunta (Finland).
Fukushima: Initial reception
When the nuclear disaster occurred in Fukushima in March 2011 I was busy with my undergrad dissertation and as a result, oblivious to the world. But I do remember seeing the before and after satellite photos of the coastlines, which had been devastated by the tsunami, and those of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The word “Chernobyl” crossed my mind once or twice as it did in the minds of others, as evident from the media and public discussions at the time. I hardly paid attention to these discussions back then, but I have since had a chance to study them in two nuclear regions, West Cumbria (UK) and Satakunta (Finland). At the time of Fukushima, West Cumbria was in the middle of a siting process for a UK Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). In Satakunta – home for the now infamous Olkiluoto plant – excavations and underground characterisation of the Finnish GDF were underway. In these regions local nuclear stories hardly changed as a result of Fukushima. If anything, Fukushima underlined the dependency of West Cumbria and Satakunta on nuclear technologies and the disaster was utilised to embolden existing,positive, stories about nuclear.
Expertise and employment
While many West Cumbrian reports on Fukushima focused on human link stories between Cumbria and Tohoku, nuclear stories of the disaster reflected West Cumbria’s reputation as a hub of nuclear expertise as well as concerns over local jobs. In economic terms, Fukushima was presented as a double-edged sword for West Cumbrian nuclear fortunes. On one hand, the local media described relations building between the expert communities at Sellafield and the Fukushima sites. In connection to this the disaster was seen to create business opportunities (such as decommissioning, for example) for the Cumbrian region and local companies. Whilst on the other hand, the media highlighted a threat to jobs at Sellafield following the shutdown of Japanese nuclear plants in the aftermath of Fukushima, which meant the cancellation of spent fuel imports from Japan – one of Sellafield’s major reprocessing customers. The risk talk about nuclear power in general and its technologies that could have followed Fukushima seemed, to a great extent, to be overshadowed by local concerns. The risk posed by Fukushima was not so much perceived in terms of radiation or technological risks as it was in terms of local wellbeing.
Engineering and safety culture
In contrast to West Cumbria, where Fukushima was partly seen as a business opportunity, local media in Satakunta did all it could to distance the Finnish nuclear industry from its Japanese counterpart. Stories about a perceived superiority of Finnish safety culture and engineering capability proliferated in the local media feeding into a narrative of “this could never happen here”. A representative of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) was quoted in a local newspaper saying that “Fukushima wouldn’t have been built in Finland even in the 1970s” – a period of more lenient regulations. The local press also compared the safety arrangements at the Olkiluoto and Fukushima plants. The greater number of backup turbines at Olkiluoto was seen as a manifestation of Finnish engineering and regulatory capability as well as Japanese indifference to safety. As in the West Cumbrian case, the local media highlighted local expertise. Unlike the UK, Finland possessed no post-Fukushima relevant knowhow (such as decommissioning and clean-up experience). Thus, the media in Satakunta contained the negative effects of Fukushima by underlining relevant safety expertise in the prevention of future nuclear accidents.
(Hardly) shaken or stirred
Overall views of nuclear power dipped briefly in the aftermath of Fukushima only to bounce back in both the UK and Finland. The UK Energy Research Centre even reported: “UK public attitudes to nuclear power have become more favourable” since Fukushima. In Finland trust in the nuclear industry has remained high since Fukushima, and a local paper in Satakunta reported that 5 out of 6 people in the region hadn’t changed their views on nuclear power and continued to support it.
In West Cumbria as well as Satakunta the reporting on Fukushima was as much about their futures as nuclear communities as it was about the disaster itself. The fortunes of both regions are very much tied into those of the nuclear industry. In West Cumbria a message from a local MP was “don’t panic” in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, highlighting the region’s sensitivity to its identity as hub for nuclear expertise and its overall dependency on nuclear. Also, in Satakunta a local politician asserted that nuclear was like “winning the lottery” and the region would maintain its commitment to nuclear power, regardless of the Fukushima. It seems that a disaster on the other side of the world has not been enough to shake views on nuclear technologies. Instead, local concerns interacted with the repercussions of Fukushima as opposed to being simplistically dominated by them, whilst existing nuclear stories not only survived, but were strengthened in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
 Molyneux-Hodgson S, and Hietala M, 2016. Socio-technical Imaginations of Nuclear Waste Disposal in the UK and Finland. In R. Hindmarsh and R. Priestley (eds.) The Fukushima Effect: A New Geopolitical Terrain. London: Routledge. Ch. 8.
 Energiateollisuus, 2014. “Suomalaisten Energia-asenteet 2013 (Finnish Energy Attitudes 2013”), http://tinyurl.com/kbcp5uv, Pesonen, A, 2011. “Mitä mieltä? (What do you think?).” Satakunnan Kansa, March 14, 2011: 5.
 News&Star, 2011. New report highlights links between nuclear industry and Cumbria’s wellbeing, http://tinyurl.com/z8w3y2l; Bourley, A, 2011. “Cumbrian MP warns against knee-jerk reaction to japan nuclear crisis.” News & Star, March 15, http://tinyurl.com/jb5j6ur; Ståhle, J, 2011. “Keskustan päättäjät eivät kadu päätöksiään (Centre Party do not regret their decisions).” Satakunnan Kansa, http://tinyurl.com/q7xetga.