Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Heading Toward Chernobyl Territory ... But With Lots of Happy Talk

In relative terms, the effect of Japan's nuclear catastrophe on us will be minimal, "writ large" at least. Despite slightly elevated levels of radioactivity detected as far across the country as rainwater in Massachusetts, it's so diluted that there is no cause for alarm. Yet. The experts, including the few that I trust, such as Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, have said as much. The best advice Cirincione gave is this: "At moments as serious as the nuclear crisis in Japan, we all — experts, journalists, officials, and corporate executives — have a duty to fully inform the public. And to trust them with the simple truth." All of us have different thresholds for what is, or isn't, safe to our health. Cirincione acknowledged this:
Just this morning, March 18, after I explained in detail over breakfast to a friend why any radiation from Japan would be greatly diluted by the time it traveled 5,000 miles across the Pacific, my friend — a successful businesswomen and breast cancer survivor — told me, "I don't have a margin of error here. I do not want to be part of anyone's science experiment. I don't want to be a nuclear lab rat." She has turned strongly anti-nuclear power overnight.
Some people in Japan — infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems — are at higher risk of health effects due to increased radiation exposure. Here's my problem with happy talk "expert" advice. From my layman's perch, I do not believe the directives issued by the Japanese government to residents of the area surrounding the nuclear disaster have necessarily been the best for their health. From the government's perspective, it must weigh the socio-political-economic consequences of a huge dislocation of the most endagered population — with no place to go, if an evacuation is deemed necessary by, what, multiple meltdowns? — with the possible health hazards of the people's exposure to high levels of radiation in the years to come.

What would you do if you were a government official tasked with making this call? Or an "expert" whose function is to offer objective reassurances — happy talk — and quash alarmist 'what if?' scenarios? It's a tough call for the Japanese government. They're not lying. They're simply weighing the risks against the costs to society at large of, e.g., an evacuation order, at a time of extreme crisis. In the last analysis, the residents in the danger zone must make their own decisions about the health hazards to themselves and their families based on inadequate, contradictory, and incomplete information.

The parade of disturbing information continues unabated. After reports of contamination to water and vegetables, the New York Times reports today "workers at Japan’s crippled nuclear plant piled up sandbags and readied emergency storage tanks on Tuesday to stop a fresh leak of highly contaminated water from reaching the ocean." Why? One "expert" after another has said it's a good thing that the radiation is going out to sea — at least the airborne radiation. Hasn't it occurred to anyone that the ocean is not a self-healing dumping ground and that all this radiation could severely impact marine life, including seafood consumed by humans? The article continues:
As fears of further contamination grew, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said his government was in a state of maximum alert over the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The Japanese government said the discovery of plutonium in the soil near the plant provided new evidence that the fuel in at least one of the plant’s reactors had experienced a partial meltdown. A full meltdown of the fuel rods could release huge amounts of radiation into the environment.

“There is a high possibility that there has been at least some melting of the fuel rods,” said Yukio Edano, the government’s chief spokesman. “That in itself is a very serious situation,” he said.
Partial meltdown. Plutonium in the soil. Continued concerns of a full meltdown that will release "huge amounts of radiation into the environment." And much too much happy talk. Obviously, for Americans to stock up on potassium iodide pills is an irrational and destructive response that could be hazardous to one's health if not used as prescribed. Worldwide supplies may well be limited. Before this crisis is over the people of Japan will most likely need potassium iodide pills in massive quantities. It would be irresponsible for anyone living in this continent, separated from Japan by a vast ocean, to clear the shelves of supplies that are most urgently needed by the Japanese victims closest to the nuclear plant disaster. The extent of Japan's loss is staggering. The National police Agency’s figures for casualties from the earthquake and tsunami, as of Sunday night, exceeds 27,000 killed or missing:
  • Number of people killed 10,804
  • Number of people missing 16,244
Rachel referred to Tokio Electric Power Company (Tepco) CEO Masataka Shimizu as "the Tony Hayward of this crisis." He has not been seen in public since March 13 and is reportedly suffering from exhaustion. Meanwhile, the executive charged with supervising the crisis in Mr. Shimizu's absence, Tepco Managing Director Akio Komiri, hasn't fared much better. The information coming from the company is yes, inadequate, contradictory, and incomplete by all accounts. A false reading on Sunday of a massive radiation release led to the temporary evacuation of the plant and an apology from the company.


In a country which has a more rigid, vertical executive corporate structure than most U.S. corporations, the top leadership of Tepco is down for the count. Considering Japanese culture, these top executives could well be under a suicide watch. The last notable Japanese citizen to commit seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide to avoid family shame and dishonor, was Isao Inokuma, CEO of the Tokai Kensetsu company, "possibly due to the financial losses suffered by his company"— in 2001.

It's a familiar pattern. In the Gulf Oil spill, BP witheld information from the public and considered every disclosure from a public relations perspective. As a result, outside experts, including government officials could not get an accurate reading on the amount of oil spilled into the ocean until much later into the disaster. Tepco seems as reluctant as BP was to release accurate, timely information while the Japanese government is as unable to do much about it as our government was during the BP disaster.

This raises troubling questions about disaster preparedness and chain-of-command when these environmental catastrophes occur. Most disturbing of all is that the expertise for dealing with a catastrophic environmental crisis such as this one (and to a lesser extent the BP oil spill) is left to the private sector, where the profit motive is paramount even if it means cutting safety corners, while government regulation and oversight has grown increasingly ineffective in the course of decades of privatization and deregulation.

It's a recipe for disaster.

PS - Here's an example of why people who watch TRMS get proportionately smarter than people who watch Fox or believe anything the Idiot Punditocracy, aka Beltway Media, says at face value. (I was thinking the same thing, Rachel: Chris Hayes is a really SMART guy!)

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