Communicating risk – Sir John Beddington

In the third of our interviews on the Fukushima crisis, Sir John Beddington speaks to us about getting the best scientific advice in a crisis, getting that advice to the people who need it, and predicting the next crisis.

What does a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) look like?

First of all, SAGE is going to have key government departments and agencies in it. But also I believe that it’s important that SAGE has independent people from outside government who are able to provide some not quite peer review, and are independent voice beyond government. First of all the question is ‘how do I find these people?’ Well, there’s a variety of networks and for a good approximation, for most issues we have a bit of a yellow pages of people. So in the case of [this] SAGE, one of the key players within government would be the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the Health and Safety Executive, the Health Protection Agency. But also because there are issues to do with actually predicting what’s happening, you need the Met office, in terms of what weather is happening down there. Because if you having radioactive release, the weather’s important. And then there’s an organisation which is called RIMNET, which is part of the Met Office which [deals with] radioactive monitoring.

So that was the government side. On the non-government side, we have a national nuclear laboratory, which is arm’s length from government. And I wanted some independent academics so there were three we got for this particular job; one was from Imperial, Robin Grimes; one from Manchester, Richard Wakeford, who was an expert both in nuclear and in health issues; and the other was an independent lady called Sue Ion. That’s the background

So you say that you have your ‘Yellow Pages’ of experts; how do you put that together so you can cope with a variety of situations? Particularly when you are looking at situations are low probability, high risk or something that has never happened before (for example the volcanic ash cloud?

Well the first thing is, obviously there are networks that I’ve got within government, because there’s a chief scientific advisor within each department. There’s obviously very strong links with the major academies. So those provide an instant link. We also have links in the research councils because I have a regular meeting between the chief scientific advisors and the chief executives of the research councils. There’s quite a substantial network. Essentially you ask around, you get recommendations of people, you find out if they’re prepared to do it.

One of the issues that the anti-nuclear lobby did raise was about the advice that was coming from scientists who were getting their funding from nuclear. Was that something that you had to take into account with regards to potential biases?

Well I don’t think there’s a bias in the sense because you’re actually doing calculations. You know, if there was anything wrong with the calculations then that can be assessed. [SAGE] wasn’t commenting on the British nuclear programme, or the nuclear programme in Japan, or commenting on whether a particular station was built in the right area. That was not the task. Our task was, what is the advice that we should be giving to UK nationals living in Japan? And what is our advice to our embassy? Now I don’t that there’s any potential for that having any problem. If we were talking about the wider issues of how one should develop a nuclear build within the UK, or how we should be operating at an international level in terms of nuclear safety, that’s a different matter. I don’t think there’s an issue there.

So going on to the media reporting of the Fukishima crisis, what did you think of the coverage? Did you find it measured or were there any concerns?

I think that there was a mixed reaction. I think that some of the reporting was absolutely factual and appropriate. I think that in the early stages there was a lot of confusion and that there were mixed messages coming out. And [there were] different reactions from different nationalities. The French advised immediately that all their people leave Japan. And they moved their embassy from Tokyo to the south. So that’s a message.

There were a lot of quite unfounded comparisons with Chernobyl. The factual stuff that I was able to put into the media, with the help of SAGE, I think was quite helpful. Chernobyl lasted for weeks, it was a fire in the core, and the graphite [present] meant that convection was taking radioactive material up to 30,000 feet. Whereas, in Fukishima, the earthquake meant that the reactors actually closed down. It was only the cooling of the reactors which was messed up. The worst case scenario that you could have had for a reactor in Fukishima was that [there was an] explosion [which] would blow the top of the containment vessel, it would go up to about 500 metres and it would last for a couple of hours. So a simple comparison on the basis of the physics says this [comparison with Chernobyl] is nonsense.

So in general, I didn’t think it was too bad. And I think that the reporting of my comments was reasonably good.

The thing that I, and I’ve never done this before, was that I did start having a series of telephone conversions with the embassy in Tokyo. First of all I would give a briefing and say ‘this is the analysis, this is the situation as we see it, and this is what we are estimating in even a series of worst case scenarios’. What I then had as part of that process was embassy staff, people from businesses, people from schools and from individual families phoning in and asking a whole series of questions. A transcript of these conversations was put up on the embassy website. We understand that a number of Japanese companies were actually circulating the transcript of these discussions around to their English speaking employees. I’ve never done that before but it seemed to be quite effective.

One of the things that we came across was the notion of once you address people’s fears, if you anticipate what they might be afraid of, you could be seen to be endorsing that viewpoint. Is this a way of addressing that?

Well I didn’t think of it in that context. I think that my job is to answer questions, when they arise, as factually as I can. And if I don’t know, I say I don’t know. In the early stages one of the things we didn’t have really good information on was on contamination of food. The Japanese are monitoring it, their standards are rather more stringent than what we have in Europe, and that certain things were at risk. The sort of advice we were giving was that look, if in doubt don’t take vegetables from an area you don’t know where it is. Certainly don’t take seafood, in particular seaweed and shellfish, from these areas.

I know you recently joined twitter (@ukchiefscientist), and you’ve used this website to have a more personal interaction, is that something [social media/personal interaction] you’re going to look to continue

I don’t know really. This was a one-off in the sense that it seemed sensible to talk to the people in Tokyo. It’s alright issuing some form of press release from here, but people in Japan mainly [only have] access to Japanese media which, even if you speak Japanese, is… well I don’t know what the Japanese for millisieverts is and I don’t suppose many of the British population in Japan does! So I think that was a worthwhile thing to do. In terms of how I deal with an emergency in the future I think I would probably say that I would always try to be outward looking.

So what is the difference between the information you’d give to government in a long-term policy and in an emergency situation?

In terms of policy, let’s think about the sort of thing I might advise on. Let’s take an issue that follows on from the nuclear. [For example] are there lessons to be learned form what’s happened in Japan for the UK policy on new nuclear build? Answer, yes, almost certainly. Question, where’s the evidence coming from? Well, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change might ask Richard Wakeford on SAGE to actually produce a report on lessons learned from Japan. That would be evidence. I would feed into that.

I think the key issue here is that in an emergency you are working flat out, you don’t have time to actually craft your advice in a way that is as detailed as you want. I don’t think the advice is wrong at all, but it’s rather more detailed when I provide advice [for policy].

You’ve got many different types of emergency, you have volcanic ash, you’ve got swine flu, and so on. How do you put into perspective the level of risk [for each risk type]?

The way that it’s done, and it’s a cross-government activity, is called the National Risk Assessment. And what you do is that you plot risks on two axes. One is the likelihood, and the other is the impact. So if you think about those two axes, high likelihood and high impact are the ones you have to be really worried about. Pandemic influenza is high likelihood, high impact. You then have the medium: flooding, fairly high likelihood, fairly medium impact compared with the pandemic. That national risk assessment is how it’s characterised. There’s debate about how that’s done, and there’s actually been a select committee commenting on that recently.

And the scientific advice is just a part of the National Risk Assessment?

The scientific advice is saying what the likelihood is and what are the implications of the impact. The impact tends to be on the log scale so that you’re not trying to get it completely accurate. I would say that what has happened in Fukishima might [put it] right up at the top of the impact scale. In terms of its likelihood, well, it’s a one in several hundred year incident that a tsunami of that sort [would happen]. So you would probably put it medium. And volcanic ash you might out now medium likelihood [and] impact, lots of people had holidays disrupted but nobody died.

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