, Newburyport, MA

November 30, 2012

Social media goes nuclear

Seabrook Station, nuclear industry keep pace in Twitter world

By Angeljean Chiaramida
Staff writer

---- — SEABROOK — 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.

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 yesterday. “We monitor for rumor control to stop erroneous information from getting out so as not to scare the public.”

Sheehan said during the aftermath of the Japan earthquake, there were many rumors spread about the situation at the power plant. The NRC was diligently involved in what was happening at the site, including sending experts to Japan to consult.

But rumors started, some based on good information and some on bad, he said. One of the stories being spread at the time of Fukushima was that nuclear radiation was heading for the U.S. West Coast from Japan, he said. When the NRC found incorrect information on the Web, it responded, taking the appropriate steps.

Sheehan said throughout the days following the crisis at 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.

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.”