Radioactive Rumor Mill Doesn’t Help Anyone

Last week, the NRC’s Region III Office in Chicago spent the better part of a day dispelling rumors of a nuclear emergency on the border of Indiana and Michigan after two non-governmental radiation monitoring networks allegedly showed extremely high radiation readings. Before the readings were verified as anything beyond equipment malfunction – which is exactly what they were – social media and the rumor mill kicked into gear.

A YouTube video about the “radiation spike” was posted early in the morning and spread like wildfire. In the blink of an eye media outlets were inundated with panicked calls from the public who had seen the YouTube video. Calls from the media and the public poured into the NRC, state officials and to the nearest nuclear power plants — Palisades and D.C. Cook.

We did our due diligence –we checked with the power plants, which were operating normally with no unusual radiation release, and we checked with the state officials in Indiana and Michigan. And we also reported the calls to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Eventually, the radiation network reporting the spike, organized and maintained by local citizens, informed the public that they had experienced an equipment malfunction and made a reporting mistake due to “out-of-control readings on the GeigerGraph screen.”

Fortunately, the incident was not real and the rumor mill in this instance was short lived. Though a week later we are still receiving calls from the public and media outlets who had not heard it was a false rumor. It’s important to remember that local and state agencies and the federal government are the best, most accurate source of verified, credible emergency information. As we’ve seen before, unofficial social media can get information wrong.

Prema Chandrathil
Public Affairs Officer, Region III

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

6 thoughts on “Radioactive Rumor Mill Doesn’t Help Anyone”

  1. One of the dangers of social media and the Internet in general is the unchecked dissemination of information. One one hand it is good that information is freely available to anyone, but on the other just about anybody can post anything. Hopefully, the public will become more aware and educated, but until that point heightened anxiety by improper social media postings is a real concern.

  2. Many of the social media reports that came out following the incidents in Japan in March 2011 were incorrect, and created unnecessary public anxiety. That is not to say that ALL the social media that was disseminated contained incorrect or unverified information. In that light, we’ve edited the last sentence of this post!

  3. I’d like to know how TWO wrong readings got public before they were verified. The leakers ought be hung out to dry — not to sound harsh. It’s one step forward three steps back effort for nuclear energy to be tolerated if not trusted by the public, and this “scare” did its share of winding the clock back on nuclear P.R. and undermining grass-roots nuclear advocacy campaigns by stroking old raw jitters. It’s bad enough you’ve a nearly science-illiterate news media out there that is philosophically anti-nuke who’ll turn a molehill of pint of irradiated water spilled deep a plant into a meltdown mountain, but you have anti-nuclear Pied Pipers out there using these incidents as FUD ammo to boot. We need a helluva lot of more public nuclear education as well as a spontaneous pre-media clearinghouse with pronto PSAs for incidences as these. If they can afford alert horns around nuke plants (that aren’t around gas and chemical facilities!) then they can well afford implementing these measures!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. The NRC tars with a wide brush here saying “unofficial social media often gets information wrong.” When it comes to radiation readings from un-calibrated instruments, that might be the case, but to say ALL social media is often wrong is also wrong.

    Social media includes blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, etc. There is a lot of useful information out there about nuclear energy and often it is right.

    For instance, during the Fukushima crisis, many people turned to social media outlets operated by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the American Nuclear Society, and the World Nuclear Association. Were they “wrong” to work to make sense out of conflicting mainstream news media coverage of events unfolding in Japan?

    The NRC’s closing judgmental statement needs to be reconsidered in light of reality and not promoted in the context of a single incident.

  5. I really appreciate the NRC responding to these issues and providing notice on the blog. Between this and the most recent post on KI, these are great pieces of information to get out and help fight the spread of incorrect information and speculation.

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