Reporting on Risks: Speak Up and Live! Or Shut Up and Die!

Keep this headline in mind when you’re dealing and reporting on all kinds of risks! It is one of the key safety formulas, and especially for science journalists and risk-related topics. And social and communicative skills are ranking as high as technical understanding and management. This was one of the lessons Wolfgang C. Goede learned at WFSJ’s recent workshop on Strengthening Nuclear Safety Culture held in Munich, Germany (November 7-8, 2016).

„Nuclear matters are not very sexy“, opened Pedro Dieguez Porras the workshop. But they are a bread-and-butter issue of everyday life in the European Union and its energy supply, as the secretary general of the European Nuclear Education Network (ENEN) explained. There are 130 nuclear power plants in operation and additionally 40 research reactors (not to mention the 444 reactors worldwide and 63 more under construction).


One third of the energy in the EU is being delivered by nuclear facilities, in France even three quarters. Apart from the dependence of this source, the plants need special attention in case of any failures and radioactive fallout, which could turn out as quite a threat to the densely populated continent.

4-working-groups-c-goedeTo make it more complicated, the risks are perceived very differently, not only from country to country in Europe, but throughout the world. Didier Louvat, managing director of the European Nuclear Safety Training & Tutoring Institute (ENSTII), introduced what he called the „risk culture“. In the United States, due to the vastness of the country risks are much less on the mind of the people, even less in Russia. However, the heavily populated Japan is much more concerned about it.


This and the disaster of the Fukushima nuclear power plant got Louvat to another crucial aspect of risk culture: „Reflexive obedience and the reluctance to question authorities“. Both attitudes contributed to the unfolding of the latest nuclear catastrophe with an explosion and a partial meltdown. So nuclear safety and education always also depends on the culture of a given country and the mentality of its population.

„Think for yourself and challenge operators“, Louvat recommended, which undoubtedly not ony applies to the staff, but also to journalists in the field to investigate an incident or a release of radioactive material.


3-tv-debates-c-goedeThe workshop „Strengthening Nuclear Safety Culture“ was organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists and its project manager Anne-Marie Legault in collaboration with ENEN as a part of the EU project NUSHARE. This was created after the Fukushima accident in 2011 and is geared towards a more proficient education and improving the nuclear competence of opinion leaders, communicators, journalists.

Fourteen journalists from throughout Europe specialized in science, technology, energy attended the two-day session, in conjunction with the EUROSAFE Nuclear Safety conference in Munich, Germany.


Leon Cizelj, professor for reactor engineering, alerted the participants to another safety factor. That installations, many of them planned in the last century are getting older and obsolete, with an increasing need of maintenance and constantly rising safety measures, as imposed by regulators, while personnel and experts are dwindling.

„Only five percent of European universities teach nuclear engineering“, he said. Important knowledge for the proper operation of these installations is getting lost. The decommissioning of nuclear plants, which for example the German government decided after the Fukushima disaster, requires a lot of knowhow and constitutes another challenge for the industry.


Ann MacLachlan, an energy journalist based in France, contributed another aspect to the topic: What do journalists report during an alert, when officials deliver confusing and contradictive information? That was the case in July 2008 in Southern France at the Tricastin nuclear site. An alleged leakage triggered an alarm, which turned out false, because critical toxic levels were not reached.

At the end, Ann concluded, „a total damage of 25 million Euros had occurred, while nobody’s health had been threatened“. Her recommendation to journalists: „Get your facts right and keep a questioning attitude!“


2-tv-interview-c-goedeSo much about the theory. Then the practical part followed. The organizers had prepared incidents, which the journalists had to research in teamwork and then present in a simulated TV press conference and a TV debate. As it turned out, the job of a moderator of such a debate is quite demanding and further training should focus on providing more knowledge and security for moderators and facilitators.

In the EUROSAFE plenary, Jan Bens enriched the safety and risk topic with many examples. He is the director general of the Federal Agency of Nuclear Control (FANC) in Belgium. „What keeps me awake at night“, he conceded, is the rising vulnerability of nuclear plants over the past decades. He mentioned sabotage, cyber-attacks and most recently drones as new risks.


Risks were also addressed by guest lecturer Manfred Müller, a pilot with Lufthansa. He talked about Flight Safety Research. While flying is one of the safest means of transportation with one accident per 100 million flights miles, a pilot commits on the average two errors every hour. When the first officer in a Lufthansa cockpit recognizes a mistake of the captain, he is entitled to take over the control of the vehicle after a proper warning.

Lufthansa, Müller stated, is explicitly encouraging a culture, „to criticize and to accept criticism“. „Don’t hide your weekness“, the Lufthansa pilot told the plenary, consisting of nuclear experts and engineers. Müller’s bottom line: „Speak up and live – or shut up and die!“


Anne-Marie Legault, the WFSJ’s project manager, announced at the end of the workshop that safety culture seminars will be extended to other fields of journalistic reporting, mainly health. Infectious diseases like Ebola for example and Zika request new safety standards to prevent misinformation, speculations and subsequent fears and panic in the population.

Article by Wolfgang C. Goede
November 2016


  1. Workshop participants with WFSJ project manager Anne-Marie Legault (first row, left). © Goede
  2. Working group of journalists and experts © Goede
  3. Journalists simulate TV debates on nuclear issues © Goede
  4. Journalists trained TV interviews, here Teuvo Peltoniemi, Finland © Goede


Stay up to date! Subscribe now to get the latest news on the WFSJ.