Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 15, 2011

Do you know what your MOM is?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Events,Preparedness and Response,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on March 15, 2011

Carl Sagan’s words about science echoed today as I tried unsuccessfully to think about what is going on in Japan.

“We have … arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

If what happened in Japan were a table top exercise, no one would allow the scenario to be used.

“OK, first we’ll do a huge earthquake; bigger than anyone has ever seen before.”

“Right. Then comes the tsunami.”

“Excellent, and we make sure the waves also hit another continent.

“Perfect. And the earthquake is so massive it knocks the earth off its axis.”


“Right. That’s too much. How about this. We blow up a nuclear power plant.

“Outstanding. Make it three power plants and maybe we really have something.”


Quotes from one of the hundreds of news reports:

“People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls.”

“Not much was left when search-and-rescue teams finally reached Natori on Monday. There was searching, but not much rescuing. There was, essentially, nobody left to rescue.”

“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming.”

“We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of the damage and the enormous demand for food and water.”

“We are getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested.”

“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough.”

“We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”

“We are patient because everyone in the quake hit areas are suffering.”

“I’m giving up hope.”

“I never imagined we would be in such a situation.”

“I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water.”

“All my other relatives are dead. Washed away.”


I was on the US east coast when the earthquake hit. I heard that by 11 AM eastern time, the US west coast would get hit by waves that traveled 500 miles an hour. I live about an hour from the Pacific Ocean. My family will be ok.

But still. How could that be?

Then Sagan’s voice again: “… almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”


More quotes from news reports:

“…radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months…. More steam releases also mean the plume headed across the Pacific could continue to grow. The White House sought to tamp down concerns, saying modeling done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had concluded “Hawaii, Alaska, the US territories and the US West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

I am never comforted by passive voice sentences. But it’s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). They ought to understand this stuff. I certainly don’t.

So I went to the NRC’s website, because people who read blogs go to websites to learn things.

The site is http://www.nrc.gov/. The home page had a picture of 3 men in ties and one woman staring at paper on a desk. Maybe its a stock photo. The caption under the photo says:

“The NRC has been monitoring the Japanese reactor events via its Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md., on a 24-hour-a-day basis. MORE

Click on MORE and you download a one page press release that says toward the end:

“The NRC will not comment on hour-to-hour developments at the Japanese reactors. This is an ongoing crisis for the Japanese who have primary responsibility.”

Good policy decision. For 1955 maybe.

But I want to give the NRC the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are busy.

They do offer a link to their “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page:

The vapidity of the prose on that page makes me long for ready.gov (whose main page provides links to information about tsunamis, flooding and the 2011 national level exercise).

I’ll look at that later. Right now I want to know more about how the west coast is “not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”


I know water traveled from Japan to Oregon at 500 miles an hour. I know weather travels from west to east. I know something called “radioactive steam” is being released and may continue to be released “for weeks or even months.” I also know first reports are frequently wrong. But I want to do my part as a prepared citizen.

What if the modeling and the passive voice sentences are wrong?

What if some crap in the atmosphere modified by the word “radioactive” makes its way across the Pacific?

I know with almost moral certainty that’s not likely to happen. Just as I know with almost moral certainty terrorists will not attack the elementary school a mile from my house. And the creek in my backyard is not going to flood and sweep my house away. One — a person, a community, a nation — accepts certain low probability, high consequence risks.

“We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces,” Carl Sagan tells me.


The NRC’s “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page seems to be mostly information for people who live near nuclear power plants.

In 2011, does living on the same planet as Japan mean I now live near a nuclear power plant?

No, says the NRC.

I have to be within a 10 mile radius before the page will speak to my concerns.


I do a little more reading on the NRC page and see something about potassium iodide.

You can learn about obtaining potassium iodine, which reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide, by contacting your State or local government’s emergency organization (see FEMA’s State Offices and Agencies of Emergency Management ). Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies. You can learn more about the Use of Potassium Iodide on NRC website.

“Reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide.” OK. That’s got to be a good thing.

So I follow that link and read:

If taken properly, potassium iodide (KI) will help reduce the dose of radiation to the thyroid gland from radioactive iodines, and reduce the risk of thyroid cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance on the dosage and effectiveness of potassium iodide.

The NRC provides this link to a PDF document on the FDA website.

Click on that link and this is what you see:

Page Not Found

Our apologies. The link or location you used does not exist or was moved.

Clicking on the other NRC links does not immediately provide any more useful information — whether from federal resources or from my state.

I know as this “event” continues to evolve, the national knowledge construction machine will triangulate a coherent story about any radiation threat and what to do — if anything — about it.

But I want to do something now.  See something, do something.


I’m not panicking. But I am being ignorant — in (I hope) a good way. I lack knowledge about the potential effects of radioactive stuff mixing with the Oregon rain and falling on my children.

Probably never going to happen. Not in a million years. But still, I do like to be prepared. Just in case.

One of the mantras from my special event days came back to me: “It’s better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”

I’ve done enough research for today. Time to get some potassium iodide.


I know I’m never going to need it, but the NRC site did say “Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies.”

I went to the health food store first. Then one pharmacy. Then another. Then a third.

All out.

Seems there may have been a small run on potassium iodide.

“We have more coming in tomorrow,” one guy told me. “I’ll call you when we get it in.”

A pharmacist at a national chain store stuttered when I asked.

“People have been asking about that. It must be for that…. that thing”

She couldn’t think of the word. Or maybe she didn’t want to say it. I didn’t say anything either.

Then — like the first time you go through a back scatter device at a TSA checkpoint — I surrendered.

“That ‘radiation’ thing?”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “That radiation thing. We don’t carry it. You want me to call the store manager?”

“No thanks,” I said, wondering why she asked me that.

I checked its availability on Amazon.

Crooks! Gouging!” shouted one (somewhat factually inaccurate) reviewer published on Monday. “This is OBSCENE! These pills go for 5 dollars per pack. Even l0 would be too much. Just this morning they jacked it from 9 to 49 and 10 minutes later… jacked it up to l00 dollars. They jacked it up twice in less than an hour.”

Interesting.  An internet panic?

Am I contributing to prudent preparedness or ignorant panic?


Since last autumn, FEMA has been talking about changing planning assumptions from whatever they are now (I think all hazards) to something called “whole community” and “maximum of maximums.” For an example, see http://blog.fema.gov/2010/12/70-earthquake-in-midwest-planning-for.html

The slightly Freudian acronym for “maximum of maximum” is MOM. Perhaps MOM was meant to be somewhat comforting. Or disturbing.  Or confusing.

The National Level Exercise in May will use a maximum of maximum assumption to simulate a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault.

FEMA’s whole community strategy “is built upon a foundation of a meta-scenario consisting of the maximum of maximum challenges across a range of scenarios.”

Maximum of maximums (or maximax) is also a decision science term, referring to a “strategy … that prefers the alternative with the chance of the best possible outcome, even if its expected outcome and its worst possible outcome are worse than other alternatives.”

That definition takes a bit of unpacking before meaning emerges.

FEMA is less abstract about MOM. They are talking about an event that

– Affects about 7 million people

– Covers 25,000 square miles

– Affects several states and FEMA regions

– 190,000 fatalities in initial hours

– 265,000 citizens require emergency medical attention

– Severe damage to critical infrastructure

– Severe damage to essential transportation infrastructure

– Ingress/egress options limited.


I went to a conference last week where FEMA leaders talked about their new strategy. I think they are waiting for President Obama to sign a new national preparedness directive before they make a really big deal about this change.

There were a few dozen experienced emergency management and homeland security professionals in the room when the FEMA representatives talked about “whole community” and “maximum of maximum.”

My sense was some people did not understand it. Some people understood it and liked it. Other people understood it but were concerned that now states and cities would have to change their planning assumptions (again).

I’m not sure I understood all of it. But today, FEMA’s definition of MOM does not go far enough for me.

It says nothing about the earth moving off its axis.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 2:56 am

Well Chris nice post as always but apparently you have not been reading my comments since HLSwatch.com started up. First none repeat none of the 15 catastrophic scenarios developed under the Bush Administration [authors still unknown–General Lawlor? Richard Falkenrather] involve regulated systems and processes like the nuclear power industry. Second, the RADEF program was eliminated by Director James Lee Witt over the objections of the NSC staff. An absent and ignorant Bill Clinton let it happen so almost no dosimetery out there nationally as revealed again in a decrepit public health system in a report released yesterday.

But the biggest one! No President has ever repeat ever created a domestic crisis response and management system and chain of command. WOW! Same for Japan apparently.

So don’t ask for whom the bell tolls? Obviously this comment could have run for days with specifics but suggest you just read my comments since the inception of HLSWatch.

But hey we were prepared for executivon of the Soviet SIOP were’nt we? Oh thats right our doctrine and the Soviets was MAD still the doctrine.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 2:59 am

Oh and Chris! Did I mention the Japanese fire ballon bombing of the US in WWII? Perhaps it tells US something. Did I mention that Chenyobl event shut down the Seattle phone system? Are you aware of the SEVESO Convention?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 3:01 am

OH and Chris did I mention the over 20 atomospheric modeling systems used by the US government and their applicability to various events? And who in the White House is the WH meterologist?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 3:03 am

Oh and Chris! Did I mention that NRC regulations assume a nuclear core melt accident [the so-called Rasmussen Report-rejected for it probabilities but not for its analysis of consequences–better known as WASH 1100]? So NRC does plan for an accident at a single reactor not just this accident now in Japan.

Comment by Tom Russo

March 15, 2011 @ 7:44 am


It may not be too late to register for the CDC conference “Bridging the Gaps: Public Health and Radiation Emergency Preparedness” March 21-24, 2011 in Atlanta!

Comment by anthonycarizona

March 15, 2011 @ 9:11 am

For times like these I recommend the other MOM…Milk of Magnesia

Comment by John G. Comiskey

March 15, 2011 @ 12:57 pm


I am a parent and am aware that you are too. Parents are familiar with the earth falling off its axis.

On a personal note the events in Japan ….oh yeah in the Middle East too have stirred my personal axis. Here’s how:

I am a US Coast Guard Reservist and was notified on Sunday that my unit would be requesting volunteers and would likely select and direct (draft) many others. I have been down this road before and am packing my bags. I have phoned my superiors and told them I am on board. I phoned my subordinates and suggested that they pack and make the necessary arrangements.

I want to go. I want to help. I just started a new job. Actually, I just started three new jobs as an adjunct professor. I don’t know how an activation will bode for my academic future. I have been told that the activation would be for 60 days pursuant to Title 14. I am not sure about that. Last year I was activated for the Gulf Oil Crisis for 60 days pursuant to Title 14. My current understanding of Title 14 is that it pertains to domestic emergencies. My current understanding is the situation in Japan is not domestic On the other hand the west coast of the US is very much domestic. In the interim, I have requested that I be placed in the second wave that would deploy in June and would hopefully be back for the Fall semester. I am keeping my fingers crossed. On the off chance, I won’t even be activated. In the near time, I am considering retiring from the Coast Guard. My civilian employer (s) are not as likely [or statutorily required] to sympathize with my reserve status as was my former government employer.

Back to the personal front. My wife doesn’t want me to go to Japan. After twenty-one years she has (to her credit) grown attached to me.

My eighteen year old son might be happy to not have me around supervising him this summer. Recently, I happened upon his 10 speed anew from some magical bike shop that illegally motorized his bicycle. Much to his displeasure the bike found its way into the dumpster. Right or wrong my actions are the HLS paradigm -prevention. On another note, my son is enlisting in the Coast Guard Reserve and might be in boot camp this summer. After that, he might join me in Japan. My 15 (going on thirty )year old daughter’s schedule is replete with everything except sleep. The next parent teacher meeting at her high school is March 25, I hope to attend.

Recently, a former subordinate was prompted and asked me for guidance in his new position. I told him not to sweat the small stuff and most of it is small stuff. Japan’s current situation being the noted exception to that rule.

The world has been spinning off its access at least as long as I can remember. Humanity has its work cut out for itself. If asked/directed I will do my part. Many others will and some wont. Sometimes it will be organized and sometimes it will just be people helping people when no one is looking

Does the UN have a FEMA?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 15, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

I wish I were able to post a picture about now…you know the one; the guy with his head buried in the sand.

This is where Taleb’s Ludic fallacy just jumps out of our policy. Unfortunately, we act and plan as if we are in possession of all the information; all the solutions and answers. It is impossible to be in possession of all the information!

I do not like to make such broad statements laced with hyperbole. However, our hubris, in my very humble opinion may not have only caught up with us but surrounds us.

Case in point; The fiscal year is nearly half over, but lawmakers are still shooting spitballs, glares, and press conferences at one another over chump change in lieu of exercising executive leadership and fund the government six months ago.

Dysfunctional does not even capture the issue.

Quite frankly we are also mystified at the layers and layers of bureaucracy and complexity we have created in order to ineffectively run the government.

If they are unable to tackle this, how should we expect them to set a course for future obligations and opportunities?

Game theory, decision theory, complexity theory, planning theory, chaos theory… how about make a decision and lead theory?

A week ago, we were debating the pro’s and cons of establishing a no fly zone with a terrorist on the ropes… we demure and opine about the feasibility… and now, it appears that the tide has turned. We shall see.

Also, it’s not even listed in the top 20 news events, but that’s to be expected.

Now the blame game in Japan starts. Stories and headlines are starting to flow; the reactor design was bad; they knew since ’72; its General Electric’s fault…

Let’s embrace ambiguity, do hard things, learn to exercise through discomfort, and demand excellence.

Our comeuppance lurks. The Middle East conflagrations, the devastation in Japan, the state of the world’s economy, and what appears to be a reluctance to learn will deliver a blow that will have potentially permanent impact on this Nation.

Not hyperbole this time, but simply observing the trends…today’s current events are tomorrow’s trends.
Who’s doing the trend analysis now?

Comment by bellavita

March 15, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

Bill — I (almost) always read your comments. You are the baseline for what it means to be prolific. You and I continue to disagree (I think) about a focus on planning v. intelligent improvisation. I envision a Ven diagram with one circle representing planning and another circle representing making stuff up as you go along. I fully support the need to create structures, procedures, protocols and everything else that goes into the planning circle. I think — to our detriment — our doctrine and inquiry pay substantially less attention to how we get better at making stuff up during an event. I recognize the planning and improvising circles overlap. I acknowledge your attention to the planning part. My experience directs my attention to improvising.

Tom — If you do attend “Bridging the Gaps: Public Health and Radiation Emergency Preparedness,” please take good notes. Maybe there is a homeland security watch post in what you learn?

Arizona Anthony — It’s interesting to me to see how internet consensus gets formed around what to “know” about evolving events. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20249-japans-nuclear-crisis-the-story-so-far.html and http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/14/japan.radiation.sickness/index.html are just two of the “what you should know” stories that help me expand what I know about this issue (or rather what I think I know).

John — good point about what kids do for planetary spin. Fitting, as today Neil Postman would have been 80; he wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” If you are deployed, please consider posting here what you come across. Maybe that will include starting the UN equivalent of FEMA?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 15, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

Here is one physicist’s view of the nuclear events and potential consequences so far:


Note that he does not address the issue of the condition of the spent fuel pools, which pose a potentially much greater contamination threat than the reactors themselves.

Chris, of particular interest to you in terms of tracking down potassium iodide is this section (the short answer is don’t bother getting gouged for the stuff, since its only good to block the body’s uptake of radioactive iodine):

“The radioactivity produces two basic problems – Radioactive iodine and longer term problems.

(1) Iodine can fall to the ground and be eaten by cows where it concentrates in the milk and babies drink the milk and concentrate in the thyroid. This has been realized for 60 years, and at the Windscale accident in the UK in 1957 the government impounded and bought all milk for a couple of months. (Curiously, the cows produced twice as much as usual, although this increase is not usually attributed to radiation!)

No one knows exactly how much was eaten at Chernobyl but a lot. 2000 children got thyroid cancer of whom 20 have died. None need have gotten thyroid cancer if it were not for secrecy. There are anecdotes (which I believe) that a school teacher in Hohnichi (Belarus) and an Army general in eastern Ukraine were reprimanded by the KGB for advising children not to drink milk for a month (the half life of the iodine is 10 days or so) and thereby causing a panic. This would not happen in an open society in Japan.

Moreover the iodine was released at Chernobyl from an explosion after five seconds and burning graphite for a week. There was no water around. If there is water, as at TMI and Japan, the iodine will interact with the water and produce water soluble hydrogen iodide.

Very little iodine was released at TMI. Therefore no problem is likely from that scare.”

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>