Posted by: bkivey | 21 March 2011

Mental Meltdown

As the world watches the Japanese cope with the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami, and a badly damaged nuclear power plant, I’m not alone in feeling ashamed about the reaction of some of my countrymen to the nuclear aspect of the catastrophe. A media that lives for sensationalism fed a mass hysteria that caused people to rush out and empty stores of anything they thought would help them survive the imminent glowing death-cloud riding the winds from Japan. This included buying up supplies of potassium-iodide (KI) pills, when I bet not one person in ten could describe their usefulness in a radiation contamination scenario.

For the record, KI reduces damage to the thyroid by preventing the uptake of radioactive iodine (I-131) in the thyroid by loading it with non-radioactive iodine (I-127). That’s it. KI isn’t some sort of magical anti-radiation pill. In fact, there’s no known cure for radiation poisoning. Survival is dependent on dose intensity, time period of exposure, and general health. During emergency management training I learned that the best defense against airborne contaminants involves plastic sheeting, duct tape and staying indoors. The major media would have had us believe that people would be dropping like flies when in fact any contamination that made it to the US west coast would be very diffuse. It’s disturbing to watch people in a tizzy because the word ‘nuclear’ is involved when the Chinese are pumping megatons of pollutants into the atmosphere that ride those very same winds to the US and significantly degrade air quality, yet not a word from the professionally hysterical.

We’ve had to endure comparisons to the Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl incidents, when the only thing the three have in common is that they involve nuclear power plants. The Fukushima plant was subjected to a millennial earthquake and a 30-foot tsunami. The TMI incident occurred due to a string of mechanical, procedural, and human errors, and the reactor failed safe. The worst of the three at the Chernobyl power plant was caused by untrained  and inexperienced people running an unauthorized experiment. Each of the three incidents reflects a unique set of circumstances that are in no way representative of day-to-day operations at a nuclear power facility, yet all the usual suspects are screaming about how unsafe nuclear power generation is. Since the introduction of commercial nuclear power some 57 years ago there have been 28 notable incidents, the vast majority of which did not cause loss of life or long-term health problems. It’s more dangerous to cross the street than it is to live near a nuclear plant, although I’d stay away from a Russian facility, either afloat or ashore.

As I’ve note previously, people aren’t very good at assessing risk, and a sensationalistic media degrades an already poor capability. TMI occurred a mere 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome, and the resulting hysteria permanently poisoned any chance at rational debate over nuclear power in this country. That mindset has been on display in recent weeks, and it’s not only tiresome, it’s embarrassing.

Bureaucratic Fatigue

Buried in an article on the Japanese efforts dealing with the Fukushima incident was a quote from Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who said he was traveling to Japan and would work to increase communication between Japanese authorities and his agency. The article stated that Mr. Amano was traveling with a team of four experts and would be meeting with top Japanese officials and touring the site.

Without knowing the details of the situation, I would wager that Mr. Amano is miffed that the Japanese are not supplying reports of a detail or timeliness he’d prefer. I’m fairly certain that for their part the Japanese are bloody damned tired of every visiting fireman on the planet demanding their time when all they want to do is deal with a catastrophic civil disaster. The Japanese are too polite to tell someone off to their face, but unless someone is bringing real help to the scene, they’d probably rather not be bothered.

Word Watch

I have seen any number of articles that mention the ‘tsunami wave’. Given that tsunami means ‘harbor wave’ in Japanese, isn’t that redundant?

 

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