COMMENT: PLATFORM; We come not to bury Chernobyl, but to explain it

PR’s role in the aftermath of Chernobyl was not to cover up the facts, but to make the public aware of them, says Roger Hayes

PR’s role in the aftermath of Chernobyl was not to cover up the facts,

but to make the public aware of them, says Roger Hayes

There can be no place in PR for those who want to disguise tragedies,

cover up reality or misrepresent the truth. But what about those of us

who have to communicate the realities behind a disaster such as

Chernobyl? What should guide the ethics and approach that an industry

such as the nuclear industry should adopt to communicating the reality

behind one of the world’s worst man-made disasters?

The problem I was faced with was that public perceptions were a long way

from the reality of the situation. A vested interest, such as the

nuclear industry, was in a difficult position to tackle this problem.

The role of nuclear communicators had to be to act as conduits for the

independent, credible third-party bodies whose integrity was beyond


The first step we took was to create an International Chernobyl Task

Force, which could coordinate the nuclear industry’s response to

Chernobyl across frontiers. As the chairman of that body I helped ensure

that the tenth anniversary was used as an opportunity to pool together

the international implications of the tragedy and for the industry to

agree a common response.

It was the view of the Task Force that the role of nuclear communicators

was to explain what had been learnt as a consequence of Chernobyl. And

we as an industry have learned a lot from it. Chernobyl established

safety at the top of the agenda in the former Soviet Union and opened up

their plants to our expert scrutiny. The formation, after the accident,

of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) shared best safety

practice across the globe and raised standards in every country.

It was by a strange irony that the main organisation which was to put

into perspective the health impact of the disaster was the United

Nation’s World Health Organisation. This was the very same body which

rightly brought to the attention of the world the massive increase in

thyroid cancer in Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia. WHO has relentlessly

condemned those that have exaggerated the health impact of Chernobyl: it

claimed that the death toll is currently 41 with the worst still to come

and that there had been no increase in either deformities or leukaemias

in the Chernobyl region.

In order to ensure that there was as rational and informed a debate on

Chernobyl as possible, the British Nuclear Industry Forum made great

efforts to familiarise journalists with the facts.

Fact sheets were produced, press trips to Ukraine and Chernobyl were

organised for major national newspapers and the broadcast media. The

industry explained the safety improvements made at Chernobyl since the

accident, but never became apologists for the plant.

The tenth anniversary of Chernobyl was very much a trust building

exercise for the international nuclear industry. Building up our

credibility with journalists, challenging some myths, clarifying the

lessons of the accident, we believe, has had a significant impact on how

the quality press and broadcast media reported the accident.

Public relations must never become an apology for a disaster. It must,

however, encourage rational debate so that public perception can come

as close to reality as is humanly possible. That was the challenge. The

argument could never be won, but our role was to even up the odds, so

that the issue was seen in proper perspective.

Roger Hayes is director-general, British Nuclear Industry Forum

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