Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2011

Japan nuclear threat: The tsunami is the bigger tragedy

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on March 19, 2011

The following is taken in its entirety from the BBC. I think it is bad practice — and worse ethics — to cut and paste from the source that invested time, effort, and money to produce the original. But I also see that HLSWatch readers almost never follow the links that accompany my posts. The argument below is important and deserves to be consumed-in-full. You can (should) access the original at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12785274

The author is David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University and a Senior Scientist in the Medical Research Council’s Biostatistics Unit.


The apocalyptic visions of destruction brought by the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami have been largely replaced in the media this week by reports of the struggle to control radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.

This provides a gripping narrative – a brave team battling to contain the threat, warnings of catastrophe and claims of incompetence, families desperate to protect their children and leave the area.

But perhaps the media coverage tells us more about ourselves than it does about the threat of radiation.

Psychologists have spent years identifying the factors that lead to increased feelings of risk and vulnerability – and escaped radiation from nuclear plants ticks all the boxes.

It is an invisible hazard, mysterious and not understood, associated with dire consequences such as cancer and birth defects. It feels unnatural.

Perception and reality

In contrast, few in the west of England seem concerned at the natural radiation they are exposed to from the earth in the form of the gas radon, even though it is estimated to lead to more than 1,000 cancer deaths a year in this country.

But if radiation comes from an accident and has been imposed on us unwillingly, we feel we can’t control it or avoid it.

It is therefore not surprising that the psychological effects of man-made and unintended radiation exposure, or even its possibility, are strong.

Many of the thousands of servicemen exposed to A-bomb tests suffered lifelong disability similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, and any effects of Three Mile Island were psychological, rather than caused by the minimal radiation exposure.

It has been estimated that 17 million were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.

This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.

The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.

By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major.

Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging. You can pay £100 ($160) and get a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up, but it can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.

Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

Barrage of opinions

Given extreme public concerns, risk communication in a crisis is vital.

The accepted wisdom is for governments to be open and honest, without denial or premature reassurance, to own up to risks and uncertainties, and to keep up a constant flow of consistent information while giving people clear instructions and something to do.

The Japanese authorities are struggling.

The electricity company appears to be as secretive as its reputation suggested and although the Japanese media are mostly giving the government an easy ride, individuals able to follow western sources are faced with a barrage of conflicting opinions.

The EU Energy Commissioner may have his own reasons for making extraordinary statements about apocalypse and imminent catastrophe.

The UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington, meanwhile, has had to revise his previously optimistic assessment to include the “worst case scenario” of radiation reaching Tokyo, albeit at a level which could be protected against.

Even under this worst case, though, the direct health consequences of the nuclear accident would be very small compared with the thousands already killed by the earthquake and tsunami, let alone the continued suffering of the survivors.

Maybe we should wait and see what happens before we decide what lessons to learn.

The Daily Mail science editor, Michael Hanlon, has already boldly claimed that “what has happened in Japan should in fact be seen as a massive endorsement of nuclear power”, given the success of most Japanese plants at withstanding a disaster they were never designed for, but others will use exactly the same information to reach the directly opposite conclusion.

Yesterday I asked an audience of 800 sixth-formers their opinion and, although they were pleased they weren’t in Tokyo, the majority still thought nuclear was a sensible option for future energy.

Maybe the generation who know nothing of the Cold War are growing up with a different perspective on radiation?


In my experience we — that amorphous collective of risk managing professionals — by in large work much too hard to avoid alarming the public.  We certainly wait too long to seriously engage the public.

There are idiots, there are troublemakers, and there are those who are profoundly vulnerable and frail.  But the vast majority of our “publics” are entirely capable of responding creatively and courageously to the truth, even moreso if we don’t wait until the last possible moment to let them in on the truth.

The truth can be complicated, ambiguous, and even paradoxical.   This kind of truth is especially characteristic of catastrophes. Too often we focus our messaging on the idiots and troublemakers (perhaps because the media often gives this minority more than proportional attention).  This tendency suppresses the resilient potential of the majority. Especially in the midst of a crisis the public ought not be patronized.

Our best policy and strategy is reaching out to the public to develop understanding and readiness well in advance of a crisis.  This last week I was involved in conducting a non-catastrophic, but very ambiguous preparedness exercise for an urban commercial district.   A colleague described the 100 plus participants as “ordinary people.”  A thank you note received afterwards included: “I want to first and foremost thank you and everyone… for helping us think clearly and thoughtfully about readiness and, most importantly, about decisionmaking under duress.”

Thinking together is helpful.   Even moreso is beginning to think together before the crisis is upon us.


A few related links:

Lessons from the long tail of improbable disaster by Steven Pearlstein

Japan’s “black swan”: Scientists ponder the unparalleled dangers of unlikely disasters by Joel Achenbach

Predictable Surprises by Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Worst-Case Scenarios by Cass R. Sunstein

Catastrophe: Risk and Response by Richard A. Posner

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 7:04 am

Actually Phil present company excepted because I often click on your most excellent links. I don’t pretend to understand risk assessment and risk management and assessment as well as I should or perhaps even at all.

Useful posts and useful links. My problem is that the Japanese, whatever the risk probabilities were of concurrent or simultaneous hazards occurring, are now faced with dealing with a new reality.

As to what are acceptable risks to a society at large, an individual, a family, a governmental organization that has to be decided both economically and culturally.

My point would be that some technologies are inherently risky and therefore require the highest reliable organizations and individuals to deal with them. Your analogy to the medical use of radiation is appropriate and that usage as revealed in a lengthy NY Times series last year often far more risky than most understand including the practicioners. Disclosure: In treating my prostate cancer underwent numerous MRI and Bone Scans and 45 sessions of bean radiation on Seimen’s equipment. Apparently it worked since a decade has passed. So I am lucky and yes took the risk although through the entire process I understood that there were many unknows.

So in the meantime what do we see happening now in the world of HONSHU Island and the Japanese disaster. Stresses and strains on the isolated elderly in particular. No heat in many shelters. Spontaeous evacuation, sometimes referred to as shadow evacuation [an evacuation not ordered or recommended by a governmental unit], shortages of food, water, medical care and other problems with distribution and supply.
My early conclusion that the event was of a size and significance that it would be as close to warfare as Japan has experienced since WWII has been born out.

So I would pass on risk analysis and probabilities and deal with what is! After all I am a practioner not a true academic–just an academic wannabe!

Some data sets are starting to appear and it will be interesting to watch how they impact the decisionmakers. The Chairman of TEPO on TV in tears. Shame is a very prevalent response to risk taking gone wrong in Japan but Phil I defer to you and others as to Japanese culture. No SEPPEKU yet for mistakes but who knows.

My concern is that a significant democracy performs well for its people. I, unlike many others, believe that the US did not WIN the Cold War. The ARMENIAN earthquake where event the Soviet Army did not obtain shovels needed for rescue in the rubble, and the event at the reactor unit [one of two] called Chernoybl promoted both GLASNOST and PERISTROKA in ways that the US still does not understand. Just as DOD always assumes that the US economy can produce whatever is needed for warfighting and essentially operates as a command economic unit [note that armored humvees still not produced in adequate numbers as an example after a decade of warfare–compare and contrast to WWII production]and that TIME and PERSONNEL are just minor inputs, the Japanese had the luxury of time the beginning of March but not now. Like General Marshall is quoted as saying after PEARL HARBOR–yesterday we had all the time in the world and no money–now we have all the money we need and no time.

So this huge huge event in modern history for both Japan and the world will be filled with amazing efforts and disappointing efforts but all will be watched for lessons learned.

Hoping HLSWatch will be documenting some of the above. So Phil keep posting those links.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 19, 2011 @ 7:37 am

Bill, two responses:

First, if our primitive HLSwatch stats package can be believed (I don’t always), I usually only have one reader checking my links. I have long assumed that was you.

Second, I know just enough about Japan — and, perhaps, human nature — to avoid much confident prediction regarding how the Japanese will make meaning of this crisis.

Will the arguably slow and often stumbling response to both the tsunami and the nuclear emergency confirm and accelerate a twenty year long narrative of decadence?

Or will the courage of the Fukushima Fifty, the stoic sensibility of the survivors, and a shared national tragedy revitalize the spiritual springs I perceive have been frozen, but still run deep in Japanese society?

Where on the continuum might a revitalized Japanese society tend: The innovative and open model of the Meiji era or the claustrophobic (xenophobic) model of kokuhonsha (founded in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923)?

I agree these are important questions. I don’t have even the bare beginnings of an answer.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 8:31 am

Yes but the fact that you know what you don’t know is helpful!

An interesting tidbit! PAR’s [Protective Action Recommendations] are now coming directly out of the Prime Minister’s office. Looking like stay indoors {hoping they know limitations on sheltering in place?]is now recommended over widespread area. Since I don’t know Japanese hoping someone is actually translating this recommendations and also wonderinf if issued in several languages?
Also spinach crop seems to be getting higher than normal radiation readings.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 19, 2011 @ 8:34 am

Bill, the Prime Minister’s office is generating a twitter feed in English. I understand this is a translation of a similar twitter feed in Japanese. As you suggest it includes PARs. You can access and monitor at http://twitter.com/jpn_pmo

Hmmm…. I first saw the twitter feed two days ago and then it seemed more practically helpful. Now it seems full of ganbatte (buck up, do your best) sort of encouragements.

More detailed official information in English at http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/incident/index.html

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 9:28 am

Thanks Phil!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 19, 2011 @ 1:28 pm


A great list of books you’ve linked to.

Your ending is the strongest, most powerful position in the piece, in my opinion.

“In my experience we — that amorphous collective of risk managing professionals — by in large work much too hard to avoid alarming the public. We certainly wait too long to seriously engage the public.”. Would you be willing to speculate that our leaders have lost their ability or capacity to exercise candor because they are unwilling to risk provoking their voter base?

Or, is it even more simpler than that-we have, as a result of overindulged, self rewarding culture, become tone deaf to such a degree that we are unable to hear, much less listen to the alarms?

I find often, that the purely pro American rhetoric is a bit dogmatic. Great Nations are great because of what they do, not what they say. Do we have the moral courage to weigh some of these issues, whether assessing our capability, our resilience, and our behaviors?

We are demanded by “society” to do this very thing as parents, teachers, law enforcement, military, etc. It always strikes me as a bit laughable how much outrage we here when something goes wrong. So few people try to do “right thing” that the ask can become quite burdensome.

By avoiding this, the hard thing, the elephant in the room so to speak, we imperil ourselves and those who rely upon us. Again, this is my opinion.

Moving on to this juxtaposed to complexity. An excerpt from the Washington Post article you linked;

“Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life – including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions – is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.”.


We race forward at our own peril. To me, this is where you, Chris, Bill, others, (me?) and all leaders and intellectuals and practitioners must revolutionize both the language and the expectation. We cannot expect the thinking and engineering that helped us create these problems also create solutions. Our embracing of technology has no foreseeable end and our need for energy, and our sustenance needs creates the highest levels of complexity.

It’s not simply a “prepare” and stand by “theology” any more. It’s the radical transformation and paradigm shift we must make in order to weigh all we see and hope to understand if when our time comes…again… we make sound and timely decisions and have embrace all that is necessary to absorb the blow and continue to move forward.

Time marches on, as dictated by the universe. Are we maximizing our conceptualization of time or are we dithering, simply allowing those universal constants; seconds, minutes, and hours click on by waiting for something or someone to hold us accountable? Are we waiting for our Superman?

Great post, as usual Phil.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

I am in agreement with DAN’s comment. Privatization of winnings and socialization of losses also a huge problem.

Comment by "Hardness of Our Hearts"

March 20, 2011 @ 9:08 am

Dan, thanks for some very worthy considerations to ponder as we look at society today and its technolgical development, the decadence of humanity which abounds so, the despair, the less and less sounds in rejoicing we hear replaced with groans of hopelessness and frustration inherent in poverty, hunger, starvation.

What we see in Japan, no looting. I see no one climbing through government public buildings as we saw in Wisconsin, trashing the place. What we see in Japan, people hungry and emotionally tested, yet standing quietly and patiently in food line, grocery stores giving food away, cars lines up at gasoline stations fr their small ration w/o incident….There is hope for the good people of Japan for they obviusly understand what is truly necessary to survive as a culture, caring about one another – the real stories unfortunately unreported are the sacrifices and compromises of family and even strangers among them who are compassionate towards fellow man in teh midst of such devastation by the hand of Mother Nature!

Unfortunately, if my perceptions of the Bible are correct in intepretation, we have much to worry about and far greater and even more devastation forthcoming and rather quickly as a result of mankind’s “blindness and deafness” towards one another — what a pity…I see the good people of Haiti still sitting with family and children, displaced from their home and in tatterted tent awaiting Mother Nature to once again unfurl torrential rains and gusty and damaging winds beginning 1st June as hurricane season commences and a world still frowning and turning its cheek, a government like all others since Babylon, corrupt just as our own “Goldman Sachs” portrayal from executive to both sides of the aisle so engulfed by speciual interests, incentuous accolades of one another as they write books and see themselves on such lofty heights only to see such inevitable failure….

I am a very devoted individual like many who read this wonderful blog to first responders, to those who who are in the front line willing to serve every time they stop a vehicle and never know whether the driver will pull a gun out and shoot at them, the EMT and firefighter who responds to save Life, howvere society overall is plagued by injustice, by those whose lust in power and willing to fall prey to evil ways, leads to such decay among us —

Many saw the buildings in Tokyo sway, however what if this was New York or Beantown? Yes, they would probably fall differently than the twin towers, but they would also be on the ground with much loss of Life because We are unprepared, certainly far less than the Japanese and Japan will learn from this harsh lesson, will we?

Where is our prepardness in at least partial (25%)funding and training of first responders from federal monies instead of relying on the broken local communities and their tax coffers where poeple are now having trouble filling their gasoline tanks becuae of dependence on foreign oil after eight sitting Presidents and 19 Congresses and We here in the United States of America still having no energy policy – give those of us on Main Street USA a break -we are not as ignorant as you perceive…yet when I see voters from my district relecting “Mr. Barney” I do wonder – and now we have boy wonder, Scott Brown meeting at local bookstores signing his books and telling of his abuse, who cares, get to work, we as a nation, our beloved Republic is in much peril, our front porch flags turned upseide down portraying distress! Yes, distress as this administration, Barry’s administration and both sides of the aisle are printing $100 million in fiat federal reserve notes monthly to keep us afloat, only to see duble dip recession and bankruptcy and this travesty allowed to continue without criminal implication – white collar crime abundant for certain — check nthe books line by line — Do you think the folks at NSA, the DoD, the brilliance in intel work being done at NYPD at LAPD to keep us safe, so many committed to keeping us safe from those who truly seek our demise and those who seek to take our second amendment Rights away, in fact to rewrite the US Constitution…this is reality…We must be vigilant and we must rewrite our buiding codes, stop this absurd building so close to the waterfront or at least make sure anyone there is at their own risk and as to the 104 nuclear facilities in 31 states, use the monies being sent in subsidies sent from State to China, yes China…and other internatinal countries and employ folks here to rebuild and strengthen our nuclear facilities against at least a 9.0 and even 10.0 magnitusde earthquake and a tsunami on the east coast which will roll over far inland from inception 3,000 miles away as a result of volcanic landslide in the Canary Islands…a wave of devastation far greater than a normal 30 foot wave by earthquake as such landslide into the ocean promises to exceed 100 feet and maybe 200 feet !! Confer with the geologists and veryify the facts! You will be quite surpised what a volcanic landslide into the ocean in the Canary Islands might just send our way – be prepared!

Where are our community shelters, water stored, MRE’s, meds, etc. Stop such waste and be diligent in all your ways! It is this “hardness of hearts” which the Bible talks about and as we see among people especially portrayed throughout the Middle East so dysfunctional, so, so disheartening, so hateful, so troublesome…especially at this time again of Passover and Easter….

(By the way, it is quite interesting to see the Germans make so commitment of troop or resources to combat Libya…oh, the Germans and the Vatican so cunning in their ways, so deceitful, so very much like the “Brutes of Tehran” anbd when these two challenge one another, oh, so much more hopelessness, so much despair, the crusaders in the quest to control Jerusalem which neither will ever control, what a fallacy, how weak mankind truly is and at the beckon of Lucifer…)

What is presently taking in Japan when we see “vulnerable” man-made facilities leaking harmful radiation affects upon the good people of Japan, people who choose to disregard the reality of tsunami or ‘nor easter and hurricane, typhoon and build their homes near the seashore despite pleas from those who understand the possibilities…

Unfortunately Dan, mankind is “subject to futility, to the bondage of decay” as we look out over our small universe which was once far different as depicted in uor telescopes and planets encircled by satellite. Lucifer has created such erosion of beauty and….

“Renewing the face of earth” and the planets far beyond is a promise which will be upheld, yet not until we understand and read such verses of Romans 8;19-23; Hebrews 2:5-8 and much more…We must strive to understand that all is in our grasp, yet We fail to heed what we have been so Blessed with, each of us, no matter color or heritage, we are all brethren who must be vigilant and watchful of those with dastardly deed and dishonesty among us.

This “futility in decay” does not bode well for humanity – surely human resilience and striving too survive, yet the ineptness, the failings of the arrogant and self-fufilling “politicians” w/their lust for power, “entrusted” to lead, yet blantant failures and much lss in human Life….I am sorry to be so pessimistic, however I have seen the prowess in power, the lusting and the “broken promises” as depicted daily here on Main Street USA w/o earthquake, people are quickly becoming enslaved to poverty here on Main Street USA and unfortunately as an international business development business person very focused in commodities spanning all continents, oil prices will exceed $150/bbl and food costs escalating which will impoverish many all because we have seen man’s demise in corruptive practice, dishonesty and lack of transparency, the coffers here in the 21st century in Swiss accounts overflowing with gold w/even the “Brutes of Tehran” storing their gold away from the good and well educated people of Tehran in coffers found in the east wehere no invader will dare challenge China and the Pacific Rim!

As an international global “commodities” businessman seeing the Chinese in every global neighborhood securing valuable resources for instance in its raping Africa of its riches in resources and transporting and storing some 50 years at least of precilus goods and stocks to assure its future while our cupboards are empty…

Planning and diligence required and if not, only swaying buildings in Tokyo, yet in the more rural and less prepared areas to the north, complete devastation and such loss in precious Life!

The “hardness of hearts” which mankind conveys to one another, its failure to offer another dignity and respect, this consistent warlike manner – the “hunter” should after all this time and experience as history has taught us in our constant evolution, even less than seventy tears ago when Japan faced the devastation of atomic detonation and utter loss in Life and property, We are again very quickly to see the shock and awe of the Middle East turn the globe into conflagration and only the direct intervetion of God’s hand to preserve humanity will save us from extinction with our Creator’s intervention neecssary for We have chosen to do little in the “futility and bondage of decay” which grips us nation to nation, community to community for we chose not to heed the warnings and we do little to stop the dastardly deeds of those whose malice is so apparent….

God Bless us all!

The people of Haiti, the people of northern Japan, those being raped in the Congo and despite my efforts and so many others, 1 billion…yes, 1 billion fellow human beings have little or no access to a clean glass of water at this very moment….

….Remember, God is witness to all and while the men of the Middle East dream of virgins and that’s all it is a dream and one given far too much worth for its reality, serious demand by God is upon ur shoulders and while the weak may perish and go to hell, We must stand tall for these who seek our clasp in handshake to work in harmony and put down our swords and our willingness to behead the innocent and repent and bring hope to this world so ravaged by those seeking to plunder its richness in Blessings for personal gain – just look to the balance sheets of the bankers and global corporations, the trillions of fita dollars stashed away, while the people of Haiti remain in tattered tent….and when I ask for a 3 yr $2 million “humanitarian” loan to address prerequisite “wastewater and water purification” project development in Haiti or for that matter in Ghana or in Rwanda, everyone turns a deaf ear — When you turn on your faucet, try and think about the wonderful folks who have not a drop from their water outlet, whatever that may be —

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

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