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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton


Technical language and jargon may accurately describe the context and the hazard but at what cost?

The editor is taking a bit of a detour from our usual edits to WEA messages to point to a message that, had it been a WEA, could have been catastrophically bad.

Here we see an alert sent from a city public safety office about a "large fire" that has resulted from a "reactor that catastrophically failed." The comments found on Twitter, or "X," from persons who are rightfully alarmed showed serious concerns about what appeared to be described as a failed nuclear reactor. Among persons who know a little about power, a reactor commonly means nuclear whereas a transformer means electric. In this case, a reactor is a special transformer that is used to limit current and control voltage and load flow. In other words, not nuclear. But that sure wasn't made clear to those who were reading their public safety tweets!

Words matter. This is why using plain and accessible language is so important. It's why my colleagues who have worked hard to figure out how to describe nuclear fallout have settled on descriptors like "dust" to explain what comes from the sky. Perhaps this isn't the preference for those of us who like to use correct technical language and rely on jargon to convey a particular meaning. But to the person who receives an alert, the meaning of the hazard needs to be clear. In this case, the word "reactor" combined with the description "catastrophically failed" signals "worst case scenario."

Because this is the editor's desk, we'll propose a few alternatives to improve this type of messaging in the future. Try something like "large fire" to describe the hazardous condition (because the hazard in this case was not a failed nuclear reactor), or "expect power outages" if this is what is to come. Stay away from words like "reactor" and "catastrophic failure" unless your intent is to truly sound the alarm and get people's attention.


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