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.
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.