Thursday, March 17, 2011

What can be learned from the Japanese Crisis?

A few days ago one of the most powerful earthquakes in modern time struck outside the eastern shores of Japan. The Earthquake resulted in a massive Tsunami that resulted in a massive loss of lives and massive damage to the infrastructure leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Japan is most likely the most well prepared country on earth to cope with this type of events and had early warning systems in place the loss of life has been great.

This natural disaster would also result in another disaster: damage to the nuclear power plant in the country. The information about surrounding the event has been field with contradicting information, uncertainty and rumors have been circulating. This event has resulted in a combination of a Manmade Disaster and a Natural Disasters. And will most likely become a textbook example of a worst case scenario.

So what can be learned?
Only after a few days the shelves in stores are empty and many of the survivors have a hard time getting access to food and water. A relatively small storage of food lasting only a few weeks and a basic storage of water could have made a great difference for many. Some are also homeless and have hard time shielding themselves from the elements as they search for lost friends and family members.

Another thing that can be learned is that everything can be lost without a moment’s notice. If anyone living next to the shores had made preparations in their homes they may have lost them if it was hit by the tsunami. Having a comprehensive Every Day Carry or a Get Home Bag may be the only tools that you have available after such a scenario.

The development with the nuclear power plants is yet another example that even systems that are believed to be safe can collapse. There were multiple backup systems in the plants but they have all failed. Of course one can focus on the design of the plants and lay blame on individual persons or the company owning the plants. And this will take place after the crisis over.

Our modern societies are dependent on a number of complex systems that makes our modern lives possible. Electricity, Telecommunications and The Internet is only a few examples. This event is an example of what can happen when just one of these systems collapse for a short time.

Many also blame the media and people in charge for not providing accurate information and misleading the public. It is possible that all information has not been provided but one should most importantly reflect over the Dynamic of a Crisis Situation. A crisis is always a situation when the information about the situation is incomplete. Even with the access to modern communications, video and the internet it is impossible to take in and find all information that is available. This may become clear after a crisis but is never completely clear during a crisis. Decision must be based on incomplete information. The situation affected by an enormous time pressure. There are great values at stake; lives, homes, infrastructure, people’s health, economic values and prestige.

Not even the expert on this subject make the same assessment on the situation, we have seen different assessments made by different government agencies from different countries. The recommendations that have gone out by the Japanese have recommended an evacuation zone of 20 km surrounding the Fukushima power plants, but other countries have recommended their citizens to evacuate to a distance of minimum 80km.

What to do if you feel worried?
• Stay informed. But understand the information is incomplete, contradictory and will continue to be so for a long period of time. Also remember that the assessments made by experts are based upon incomplete information.
• Read up on the subject and learn more about radiation and previous events.
• Learn what agencies in your country / region that measure radiation and where you can find this information.
• Create routines for closing ventilation, securing windows etc.
• If you live in Japan, increase the distance between yourself and the plants if possible until the situation is under control.

How would a situation of this type be handled in the US? There are extensive plans for handling this type of events in the US and a system for triage and mass casualty events have been developed. You can find the “The RTR Medical Response System for Nuclear and Radiological Mass-Casualty Incidents” here.

What will happen?
It is impossible to say how this crisis that is still ongoing will end. If there is a complete meltdown radioactive fallout may affect only the local area. During the Chernobyl meltdown the explosion was very powerful and fire that followed in the graphite would result in severe fallout far away from the plant. The circumstances in these plants see to be very different and the reactor design different from the case of Chernobyl. But there is still no telling with certainty what will follow. The cooling may be restored or the development may continue. What the long term and short term effects will be is impossible say right now. But the problem is Dual. Both the damage from the earthquake and the following tsunami plus the situations in the Japanese Power plants must be handled in what has become of the most complex crisis of our time.

During this crisis we have also seen other reactions like people stocking up on Iodide tablets. Iodide can prevent the body from taking up radioactive Iodide if inhaling or digesting radioactive particles. But it does not offer a complete protection from radiation. Do not TAKE iodide tablets unless this has been ordered by a government agency. Also make sure to follow the instructions if you do, taking too many tablets can result in severe consequences. People with allergies to iodide, taking certain medication and people with certain types of disease should not take Iodide. There are also special considerations for pregnant women, children and other groups. Talk to your doctor if you have bought this type of tablets. This form of tablets are now selling for very high prices on sites like E-Bay, a similar reaction could be seen during the Swine Flu pandemic with Tamiflu. At this point this seems like an overreaction to me, especially for those how live far away from the plants, like people living the US.

By the time I write this some or all of this information may have been proven wrong or incomplete, this is my take on the situation right now.

Information is the most critical aspect during any CBRN event – stay informed.

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