In the days after the Fukushima nuclear accident - much as in the days immediately following the 2010 BP Gulf oil disaster - there was an air of sinister unreality to official government and corporate proclamations about the severity of the event. Despite the absence of good information about exactly what was happening, you just knew that things were worse than the authorities were letting on.
My colleague Travis Madsen, who has headed up our response to the Fukushima accident, e-mailed me late on the day of the tsunami to summarize what we knew at the time, which was fairly little. His last words: "I don't like the look of this at all, despite the reassuring things their cabinet ministers and power officials are saying."
As time passes, we are increasingly coming to find out that many of the "reassuring" words from industry and governments worldwide in the wake of the Fukushima accident were just PR spin.
Yesterday, Britain's Guardian newspaper came out with a blockbuster story accusing the British government of colluding with the nuclear industry in a public relations campaign to downplay the severity of the Fukushima accident in the public mind. The Guardian obtained e-mail traffic between the government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the nuclear industry. The tone of the e-mails, especially in retrospect, is chilling.
Wrote one BIS official:
"With regard to the events in Japan. I have been watching over this wkend. We need to work together on this and have very strong coordinated messages. There is a risk here that this event could impact on the global industry. We need to ensure that the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it."
In another case uncovered by the Guardian, British officials cleared the text of a statement on the impact of Fukushima on Britain's future nuclear strategy with industry officials.
Looking back on the initial reassuring industry response to Fukushima is especially harrowing as evidence of the impact of radiation releases from the plant - releases that were going on even as those reassuring statements were being made- continues to mount. New reports out of Japan today show that 10 children in Fukushima City (which is 50 km away from the plant) have tested positive for radioactive cesium in their urine - confirmation that they have been exposed to internal radiation. While medical experts have stated that it is impossible to tell how serious the exposure may have been from urine tests alone, the Japanese government has already issued statements attempting to tamp down the health concern.
The Fukushima story provides yet another powerful lesson that industry public relations - especially in the midst of "crisis management" - should never be taken at face value. Neither should the statements of government officials who see their jobs as doing the industry's bidding.