News Column

Social Media Goes Nuclear for NRC

December 3, 2012

Angeljean Chiaramida, Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

With bloggers blogging and Twitterers tweeting at every moment on just about any topic imaginable, the nuclear power industry is finding it's critical to keep up, including here at Seabrook Station.

National regulators and those involved in the nuclear industry say monitoring social media to ensure the public gets accurate information has become an essential part of their work.

Neil Sheehan, regional spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the rumors that circulated following the 2011 earthquake that hit Fukushima, Japan, surrounding the impact on the nearby nuclear power plant are a good example of the importance for national agencies to keep track of what's being written on Internet blogs and distributed on smartphones.

"When events like this happen, we have someone here monitoring social media," Sheehan said. "We monitor for rumor control to stop erroneous information from getting out so as not to scare the public."

Sheehan said throughout the days following the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi, the NRC received calls from other federal agencies such as FEMA, the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency about information found on social media outlets.

The NRC was able to confirm or correct the information, he said.

"We always want to make sure that it's accurate information that's out there, and if it's not accurate, then we can correct it in real time using social media because that's the world we live in today," Sheehan said. "It used to be said that we had a 24/7 news cycle, but now they say it's a 140-character news cycle, because that's the number of characters you can use on Twitter."

Locally, the spokesman for NextEra Energy Seabrook nuclear power plant said he's witnessed the same situations arise during a low-level unusual event that took place at the plant in June.

When a small amount of ammonia spilled in a storage room in the warehouse section of the plant, Seabrook Station authorities declared an "unusual event," because the chemical nature of ammonia rose to the criteria for such a declaration, Al Griffith said. The plant sits 17 miles directly across the water from parts of Cape Ann, and is visible on a clear day from Lanesville, Gloucester's Folly Cove and Rockport's Halibut Point State Park.

In the June episode, all the appropriate agencies -- including the NRC and local and state emergency agencies -- were notified, as is the required procedure, Griffith said. But some people who habitually monitor scanner frequencies and other communications avenues heard the information and spread it on social media, blowing the event out of proportion, he said.

As a result, what was really a minor problem that was addressed and cleared up quickly grew significantly in scope due to rumors on the Web, said Griffith, whose office was immediately deluged with calls.

Situations such as these are why Seabrook Station's parent company, NextEra, located in Juno Beach, Fla., now has people within its communications team monitoring social media and correcting misinformation when needed.

"The purpose is to identify rumors and correct mistaken information that's gotten out there," Griffith said. "News and information travels a lot faster than it used to, and as a company, you need to be nimble and respond quickly. You have to be a lot faster, and using social media makes us more efficient."


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Source: (c) 2012 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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