Sophia and Kai Vetter and the Moto family

Kai Vetter and his daughter, Sophia, visit the Moto family in Kawauchi Village in September 2015. The village was partially evacuated after the Fukushima accident, but the family decided to stay because they were informed that the radiation level in their home was minimal. (Photos courtesy Kai Vetter)

Q+A on resilient communities

Kai Vetter, professor of nuclear engineering and director of Berkeley Lab’s applied nuclear physics program, is a frequent visitor to the Fukushima Prefecture, the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents — he’s been to Japan 15 times in the past four years alone. On March 11, 2011, three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down, following a cooling failure caused by a tsunami that damaged the plant’s safety systems.

In response to what he’s seen, Vetter created a Berkeley Lab-based organization in 2015 called the Institute for Resilient Communities, which is designed to help authorities better communicate critical scientific information following disasters.

How does better communication help during disasters?
Communication about technical topics, like radioactive contamination, enables community leaders and the general public to make informed decisions. For example, health effects resulting from the psychological impacts of disasters are absolutely measurable. After Fukushima, estimates indicate 2,000 fatalities from the indirect health effects of dealing with the uncertainty and stress of losing homes and fear of radiation exposure.

With better communication about sensitive topics, such as radioactive contamination, it is possible to develop better risk assessments to reduce impacts on residents. Our goal is to help communities understand what happened to them and what will happen to them in the future. One way we do that is to use state-of-the-art technologies to show them the data on contamination levels.

Site visit to tour the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant ON THE GROUND: Institute for Resilient Communities director Kai Vetter and deputy director Rebecca Abergel, a staff scientist in the chemical sciences division at Berkeley Lab, (seated side-by-side at center), tour the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2016 as part of the International Symposium for Resilient Communities in Koriyama City.  After gearing up in protective clothing, participants were able to get very close to the damaged reactor units. (Photo courtesy the researchers)What’s the Institute for Resilient Communities’ role in this?
Communities need to be involved in decision-making. So we have to improve the information they receive and — equally important — ensure that the information is understood so they can make their own decisions.

So the institute advocates for better access to information about potential risks and impacts?
Yes, the driver to establish the Institute for Resilient Communities was the need to connect community involvement with research and science and education and training. Berkeley RadWatch and the DoseNet project are two great examples of our efforts to provide information about environmental radiation within a local and global context. 

Does this idea of resilient communities extend beyond your work in Japan?
Absolutely. Initially, and even still, this work is driven by Fukushima and its aftermath. What’s fascinating is, if you look more broadly at the concerns of the public about advanced technologies, you find the same issues. So it’s not just nuclear power, or radiation per se. Community resilience is a global issue, and all communities can take steps to identify and prepare for threats, both manmade and natural.

We started with nuclear radiation because that is our area of expertise, and we can have technologies to address those concerns — but we recognize that many other challenges exist. In the future, we hope to enhance resilience by informing the public about advanced technology. In many circumstances, the risk associated with and the consequences of not adopting advanced technologies is far greater than the risk or consequences of adopting them. This is why it is so critical to have an open dialogue between scientists, educators, community leaders and residents.

Topics: Nuclear engineering, Environment

Reach the editors at