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Ionising radiation

Environmental Radioactivity - Medicine - Occupational Radiation Protection - Nuclear Hazards Defence

Ionisierende Strahlung

Coping with psychosocial problems in the event of a reactor disaster

  • Nuclear accidents can lead to psychosocial problems in the affected population.
  • Reasons for this may include evacuation, social exclusion or uncertainty about health consequences.
  • The minimising of psychosocial problems has to be integrated into the emergency management for nuclear accidents.

In the case of natural disasters, for instance severe earthquakes or floods, the affected population carries a high psychological burden. This also applies to catastrophic nuclear accidents as in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Emergency response measures e.g. evacuation, relocation or decontamination measures are a serious interference in the lives of those affected and considerably impair their physical, mental and social well-being.

Uncertainty causes illness

Psychosocial consequences occur independently of the actual radiation exposure and the possible health consequences involved. Going through emergency response measures, missing or incomprehensible information and inadequate communication may cause anxiety. As a consequence of the radiation exposure, relocated individuals may also be socially excluded in their new environment. These burdens lead to mental illness in many affected individuals.

Ionising radiation cannot be perceived by human senses and, for lay people, radioactivity is a risk which is difficult to estimate. Subsequently, the affected individuals are often deeply unsettled as far as the level of exposure and possible health consequences are concerned.

Certainty through reliable information

Consequently it is important to satisfy the need for information of those affected and to make reliable information available via the Internet, the press and television. Social media are becoming increasingly important with the rapid dissemination of information. At the same time, the potential for uncertainty is especially large when unverified information is disseminated by a large number of different participants.

Research on psychosocial problems following nuclear accidents

Research on the reactor disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima has shown that uncertainty and anxiety states have a significant impact on the health of many of the affected individuals.

Scientific knowledge on the psychosocial consequences following (nuclear) disasters is available now, but has not yet been integrated into the planning of radiological emergency preparedness. So far, protective measures have only been based on the possible physical consequences of radiation exposure.

Complementing emergency preparedness by psychological aspects

This is about to change. At the international level, competent authorities and organisations are working towards integrating psychosocial after-effects into the measures for the protection of the population. Physical and psychological consequences are considered together in the process.

Particular attention is paid to the communication of the potential negative effects of risk technologies, so-called risk communication. Confidence in expertise should be boosted by imparting special knowledge in order to reduce anxiety. This approach should contribute to prevent panic reactions in an emergency situation and to thereby diminish negative psychological effects.

Another aspect is the qualification of the personnel deployed on the scene in the event of a disaster. In addition to special knowledge about health aspects, it is very important to look after the affected individuals intensively, to enhance their feeling of security and to attend to their personal needs.

Workshop: Consideration of psychosocial after-effects

In Germany, the knowledge on the psychosocial after-effects of nuclear accidents are to be integrated into the planning of the radiological emergency preparedness. As a first step, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) organised the interdisciplinary workshop "Coping with psychosocial problems and communication concepts in nuclear emergency preparedness" together with the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance (BBK) and the Centre for Security and Society of the University of Freiburg in October 2016. At the workshop, authority representatives, disaster control officials and scientists discussed this subject.

State of 2017.11.28

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