09 April 2011

Fukushima Disaster: Are We Told The Truth?: Stephen Lendman

By Stephen Lendman
08 April, 2011

On April 6, Reuters reported that "the core at Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactor has melted through the reactor pressure vessel," Rep. Edward Markey told a House hearing on the disaster, saying:

"I have been informed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that the core has gotten so hot that part of it has probably melted through the reactor pressure vessel."
However, the NRC is denying this. Reuters subsequently reported:
A top official from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said on Wednesday it was not clear that Japan’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear reactor has melted through the reactor pressure vessel.
Earlier, Democratic lawmaker Edward Markey told a House of Representatives hearing on the nuclear disaster that the NRC had told him the core had melted through the vessel.
“That’s not clear to us, nor is it clear to us that the reactor has penetrated the vessel,” said Martin Virgilio, deputy executive director for reactor and preparedness programs at the NRC.
Recklessly promoting nuclear proliferation, America's NRC is notorious for coverup and denial of its harmful effects.

Nonetheless, on April 6, New York Times writers Matthew Wald and Andrew Pollack headlined, "Core of Stricken Reactor Probably Leaked, US Says," stating:

America's NRC "said Wednesday that some of the core of a stricken Japanese reactor had probably leaked from its steel pressure vessel into the bottom of the containment structure, implying that the damage was even worse than previously thought."

Far worse, in fact, because molten core material then burns uncontrollably through the concrete foundation, meaning all bets are off.

On April 5, Times writers James Glanz and William Broad headlined, "US Sees Array of New Threats at Japan's Nuclear Plant," saying:

American engineers warned "that the troubled nuclear plant....is facing a wide array of fresh threats that could persist indefinitely, and that in some cases are expected to increase as a result of the very measures being taken to keep the plant stable, according to a confidential" NRC assessment.
Identified threats include:
-- Possible further explosions because of hydrogen and oxygen from seawater used to cool the reactors that may have done more harm than good. According to former GE reactor designer Margaret Harding:

"If I were in the Japanese's shoes, I'd be very reluctant to have tons and tons of water sitting in a containment whose structural integrity hasn't been checked since the earthquake," and very likely is seriously damaged.

-- Because of concern about severe reactor core damage, NRC recommended boron be added to cooling water as a moderator to absorb neutrons.

-- Exposed/unprotected spent fuel rods in Units 1, 2, 3 and 4 pose extreme dangers. Moreover, explosions blew nuclear material "up to one mile from the units" into the atmosphere, indicating much greater damage than previously disclosed.

As a result, David Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) believes:
"This paints a very different picture, and suggests that things are a lot worse. They could still have more damage in a big way if some of these things don't work out for them....They've got a lot of nasty things to (handle), and one missed step could make the situation much, much worse."

Other experts believe criticality was reached, posing far greater dangers than revealed.
Yet government and Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) officials still claim "no immediate risk of a hydrogen explosion occurring" or serious harm to human health. In fact, danger levels now are extreme. More on that below.

Even the NRC admitted that salt water "severely restricted" and likely blocked circulation pathways. Moreover, inside the core, "there is likely no water level (so it's) difficult to determine how much cooling is getting to the fuel." Perhaps none, and three or more reactors are affected, one or more in meltdown.

Independent Expert Opinions

On April 4, geoscientist/international radiation expert Leuren Moret told interviewer Alfred Lambremont Webre that Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are concealing the effects of tectonic nuclear war on North America from Fukushima's fallout. In fact, Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) radiation maps confirm contamination on America's West Coast, Midwest, and Western Canada, in some areas as high as Japan's.

Radioactive Iodine-131 in rainwater sampled near San Francisco was found to be over 18,000 times above federal drinking water standards. Idaho, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts rainwater samples showed Iodine-131 up to 181 times above normal, expected to rise. It's also showing up in milk.

As a result, mobile measures in parts of America and Canada were suspended until further notice to conceal the disaster's gravity.

Moret cited two distinguished nuclear scientists who've publicly said northern Japan (one-third of the country) is uninhabitable and should be evacuated. Marion Fulk is one, a Manhattan Project scientist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb. He also was America's atmospheric fallout expert when above-ground tests were conducted.

Dr. Chris Busby is the other, an ionizing radiation expert. On March 30, he told Russia Today television that Fukushima contamination will cause at least 417,000 new cancers.

Moret called Fukushima a false flag operation to weaken an economic rival, harm its economy, agriculture and fisheries, and compromise its detente with China. Compared to Chernobyl, Fukushima's releasing multiple times more radiation, perhaps amounts too enormous to imagine with potentially catastrophic global effects.

In response, Japan, America and Canada are in denial. Permissible radiation exposure levels have been raised. Legitimate reporting was halted. US and Canadian atmospheric testing was suspended. State authorities told California physicians not to give iodine to concerned patients. Measuring radiation in milk was also stopped.

Contamination is spreading from the Arctic to the Equator. Long-lived radioactive isotopes will cause environmental and human health havoc for generations. Moret said life forms developed over billions of years are being destroyed in a century.

On March 29, Chris Busby's Rense.com article headlined, "Deconstructing Nuclear Experts," saying:

"What these people have in common is ignorance. (Most) who appear (in the major media) and pontificate have not actually done any research on the issue of radiation and health. Or if they have, they....missed all the key studies and references. (Others are) real baddies" who say Fukushima is nothing to worry about, nothing like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island (TMI).
In fact, Fukushima already way exceeds both and will get increasingly worse ahead as radiation releases continue and spread. Busby quoted Joseph Conrad saying, "after all the shouting is over, the grim silence of facts remain."

"I believe that (the array of) phony experts," said Busby, "are criminally irresponsible, since their advice will lead to millions of deaths....I hope they are sent to jail where they can have plenty of time to read the scientific proofs (showing) their advice was based on the mathematical analysis of thin air."

He cited the late Professor John Gofman, a senior US Atomic Energy Commission expert who resigned, saying:
"(T)he nuclear industry is waging a war against humanity."
So far, in fact, it's winning. It's entered an endgame that will decide whether or not humanity will survive. "Not from sudden nuclear war," said Busby. "But from the ongoing and incremental nuclear war which began with the releases to the biosphere in the 60s of all the atmospheric test fallout, and which continued inexorably since (to this day), accompanied by parallel increases in cancer rates and fertility loss to the human race."
Busby calls it "the greatest public health scandal in human history...." Who can disagree.

A Final Comment

In a personal email, environmental researcher Dr. Ilya Perlingieri explained the dangers of Japan dumping thousands of tons of radioactive water in the Pacific, saying:
"We are all in grave danger! This was insanity! This radioactive water will come here (to America). There is no question about that. The currents will bring it to the west coast and contaminate the entire area: beaches and all sealife between the coast and Japan. What evaporates naturally will then come on the air currents around the rest of the US and then the rest of the planet!""This is epic, and it was not an accident."

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

Presidential Directive on “National Preparedness”: FAS

The Obama Administration today released the text of Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 8 (pdf) on “National Preparedness.”  The Directive, signed by President Obama on March 30, generally calls for development of systematic response plans for natural and manmade disasters, and seeks to enlist broad engagement in the process.

“This directive is aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the Nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters. Our national preparedness is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and individual citizens. Everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm . As such, while this directive is intended to galvanize action by the Federal Government, it is also aimed at facilitating an integrated, all-of-Nation, capabilities-based approach to preparedness.”

From a secrecy policy perspective, two points may be noted.

First, while presidential directives are fundamental instruments of national policy, the Obama White House does not make them available on the White House web site.  You can find the names of hundreds of thousands of tourists who visited the White House and other information of questionable value and utility, but you cannot find a collection of unclassified directives issued by President Obama.  This is incongruous.

Second, it is noteworthy that the new Presidential Policy Directive is only the eighth one to be issued by the Obama Administration.  At this point in the third year of the George W. Bush Administration, around 25 presidential directives (NSPDs) had been issued.  And in the Clinton Administration, there had been around 35 directives (PDDs).  So this Administration is using directives much more sparingly, for reasons that are hard to discern from a distance.

The "directive" from Barry&Co re emergency


Preparing for the Next Public Health Crisis

Establishing a Public Health Response Plan to 

Address Threats Such as the Gulf Oil Disaster

SOURCE: AP/Patrick Semansky
Workers clean up the gulf shore. The BP disaster reiterates 
why we need to better manage the short- and long-term 
responses required to address the public health threats 
such disasters pose whether they are manmade or due 
to natural causes.
We’ve all seen pictures of the dreadful and continuing aftermath of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental cleanup and the economic consequences of this will last far into the future, and it’s hard to imagine that the time will come when fumes from oil, chemicals, and burning no longer pollute the air, oceans aren’t covered with sheets of oil, beaches aren’t stained with tar, and marshes aren’t clogged with residues. But with hard work that will eventually be the case. At that point the Unified Command—which was established under U.S. Coast Guard leadership to manage the response to this disaster—will fold, the cleanup workers will go home, and the raft of workers brought in from diverse agencies as part of the emergency response will be pulled back to deal with other more urgent tasks.
But health threats from the oil spill may linger unseen, perhaps for more than a generation. And we will not be fully prepared to address the public health problems that arise in the future unless there is an effective and coordinated handover of responsibilities for protecting public health from the emergency response agencies to agencies with the capability and capacity for long-term monitoring and management. Federal agencies have been pulled in as needed in the gulf spill response, but it’s not clear that the Health and Human Services response has been synchronized from the top to ensure effective delivery and coordination.
In short, the spill reiterates why we need to better manage the short- and longterm responses required to address the public health threats such disasters pose whether they are manmade or due to natural causes.
No systematic long-term monitoring and oversight was put in place with the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and now we wonder what we missed. Several studies following the Prestige oil spill off the coast of Spain in 2002 indicate that some respiratory problems in cleanup workers didn’t show up until years after the spill. Additionally, evidence suggests DNA damage occurred to these workers that could lead to cancers and alterations in hormone status.
The responsibility for both the immediate and long-term responses can only be led by the administration from the highest levels. This is not an appropriate role for corporations, which cannot be trusted to put the long-term interests and needs of the affected communities ahead of their business concerns. The BP oil spill is a clear example of why we cannot allow the very corporation that caused the problem in the first place to be trusted with monitoring its potential health effects. The protection of public health has always been a key responsibility of the federal government, and we have previously called for the federal government to takeover this responsibility with respect to the gulf oil spill.
The gulf oil crisis reminds us that it is essential to have a response plan that is activated early and can continue into the future for as long as needed.
This is not the first time the nation has faced such a crisis, and it won’t be the last. We have faced public health threats from the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and from infectious agents such as SARS, Avian flu, and H1N1 flu that fortunately did not reach crisis proportions but could have. The responses, while effective, have not been always been well coordinated. The Government Accountability Office in 2008 identified important lessons from the WTC response that could help develop responder health programs in the event of a future disaster, but the GAO recommendations have not been fully addressed.
The gulf oil crisis reminds us that it is essential to have a response plan that is activated early and can continue into the future for as long as needed. We need to establish an architecture complete with clear lines of responsibilities and acknowledged trigger points for action. It should facilitate the involvement of the appropriate federal health agencies in addressing a potential public health emergency— from watchful waiting to emergency response to long-term monitoring and management.
We do not need a new entity to put this system in place. Government has the expertise among the many HHS agencies to handle any given public health emergency, but different players may be called on at different times depending on the event. This transfer of responsibilities will occur mostly between HHS agencies, but it may also involve nonhealth agencies as well. Obviously this is now the case with the gulf oil crisis, but it could occur with other incidents as well. With a large-scale infectious agent attack, for example, medication may need to be delivered to the homes of many affected Americans, and it has been suggested that the U.S. Postal Service could fill this role since they know how to get parcels to nearly every U.S. home.
We propose that a single, high-ranking HHS official be designated to launch and oversee the coordinated response plan implemented whenever a situation arises that can threaten public health. We recommend this leadership role go to the assistant secretary for health, or ASH. The ASH should have responsibility for determining when and how the response to a public health threat moves into the initial emergency phase and when it transitions to a long-term monitoring and management phase. The ASH would have responsibility for ensuring—in conjunction with other federal, state, and local agencies, academics, and the private sector—that needed services are delivered and information is collected, and that data, information, and resources are transferred to the responsible HHS agency or agencies.
This approach does not require new agencies or significant new authorities. But it will require the following:
  • Clarification of roles and responsibilities of all agencies and offices involved
  • Robust surveillance systems with standardized data that can analyze information collected from a variety of sources
  • Sufficient financial resources and the appropriate workforce to develop capacity and maintain long-term monitoring systems
  • Mechanisms in place to address ongoing medical needs for individuals affected by the crisis
  • A financial infrastructure to assure funding is available for immediate and longer-term health needs
This paper looks at the issues that must be addressed in the immediate (emergency) response situation to facilitate the eventual handover to a long-term monitoring and management system, what that system should incorporate, how to trigger the emergency response and the long-term monitoring phase, and how the different agencies should work together in a seamless fashion. But first, it examines how our current system lacks an overall plan to maximize the contribution of all available agencies and organize the strongest possible public health response.

U.S. health-care system unprepared for major nuclear emergency, officials say

U.S. officials say the nation’s health system is ill-prepared to cope with a catastrophic release of radiation, despite years of focus on the possibility of a terrorist “dirty bomb” or an improvised nuclear device attack.
A blunt assessment circulating among American officials says, “Current capabilities can only handle a few radiation injuries at any one time.” That assessment, prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 and stamped “for official use only,’’ says “there is no strategy for notifying the public in real time of recommendations on shelter or evacuation priorities.”
The Homeland Security report, plus several other reports and interviews with almost two dozen experts inside and outside the government, reveal other gaps that might increase the risks posed by a nuclear accident or terrorist attack.
One example: The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile stopped purchasing the best-known agent to counter radioactive iodine-induced thyroid cancer in young people, potassium iodide, about two years ago and designated the limited remaining quantities “excess,” according to information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ProPublica. Despite this, the CDC Web site still lists potassium iodide as one of only four drugs in the stockpile specifically for use in radiation emergencies.
The drug is most effective when administered before or within hours of exposure. The decision to stop stockpiling it was made, in part, because distribution could take too long in a fast-moving emergency, one official involved in the discussions said. The interagency group that governs the stockpile decided that “other preparedness measures were more suitable to mitigate potential exposures to radioactive iodine that would result from a release at a nuclear reactor,” a CDC spokesperson said in an e-mail to ProPublica.
Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis might prompt officials to revisit that conclusion. With radiation levels higher than expected outside the evacuation zones in some areas, the Japanese government recently asked the United States for potassium iodide. The federal government agreed to send some of its dwindling stockpile of the liquid version used in children or adults, which is due to reach its expiration date within about a year. The government is “finalizing the paperwork,” according to an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Another example: Although hospitals near nuclear power plants often drill for radiological emergencies, few hospitals outside of that area practice such drills. Most medical personnel are untrained and unfamiliar with the level of risk posed by radiation, whether it is released from a nuclear power plant, a “dirty” bomb laced with radioactive material or the explosion of an improvised nuclear weapon.
Many states don’t have a basic radiation emergency plan for communicating with the public or responding to the health risks. Even something as fundamental as the importance of sheltering inside sturdy buildings to avoid exposure to radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion — which experts say could determine whether huge numbers of people live or die — hasn’t been communicated to the public.
Recently the White House and other federal officials concerned about deficiencies in public readiness met with experts to explore what might be done to make nuclear events more survivable. “The bottom line is that the citizenry are not prepared at all,” said Michael McDonald, president of Global Health Initiatives, who participated in White House and congressional briefings.
The Department of Homeland Security report acknowledges that officials are poorly prepared to communicate with the public and that the current organization of medical care “does not support the anticipated magnitude of the requirements” following an attack with an improvised nuclear device. It says the United States has “limited” treatment options for radiation exposure and notes that staff and materials aren’t in place to carry out mass evacuations after a large-scale release of radiation. “The requirements to monitor, track, and decontaminate large numbers of people have not been identified,” the report said.
Underlying the preparedness problems is the need for additional research. It isn’t known, for example, how a nuclear blast and electromagnetic pulse would affect modern communications infrastructure, or to what extent modern buildings can protect people from nuclear blast, heat and radiation effects.
report prepared last year by the Council on State and Territorial Epidemiologists was equally pessimistic about U.S. readiness. Based on surveys of public health officials in 38 states, it concluded that “in almost every measure of public health capacity and capability, the public health system remains poorly prepared to adequately respond to a major radiation emergency incident.” Forty-five percent of the states surveyed had no radiation plan at all for areas outside federally mandated nuclear power plant emergency zones. Almost 85 percent of the officials said their states couldn’t properly respond to a radiation incident because of inadequate planning, resources, staffing and partnerships.
More troubling was the fact that the situation hadn’t improved since a similar survey was taken in 2003. “Most of those comparisons appear to indicate either the same poor level of preparedness and planning or a decline in capacity,” the report said.
The nation’s investment in emergency preparedness seems likely to decrease rather than increase, experts say, because of massive federal and state deficits.

President Obama’s proposed budget would cut funding for a federal hospital preparedness program by about 10 percent. The release of proposed federal regulations that would require hospitals to meet emergency management standards has been delayed.

“If the public isn’t demanding that we be better prepared, the politicians won’t put the money in for us to be better prepared and the regulators” won’t require it, said Arthur Cooper, a professor of surgery at Columbia University and director of trauma and pediatric surgical services at Harlem Hospital Center. “It all begins with the public knowing this is a problem that’s got to be solved and it’s worth spending some money and effort to try to be prepared in a real way.”
Hospital preparedness
In the days after nuclear fuel at Japan’s Fukushima power plant began to overheat, the greatest threat to one hospital within 50 miles of the plant wasn’t radiation, but fear. Many staff members had fled, and government emergency workers hadn’t delivered food and medicine needed for the 120 patients. Masaru Nakayama, director of Kashima Hospital in Iwaki, Japan, said it took time to convince people that the area around the hospital was in fact safe.
Yet in national surveys, U.S. hospital workers have expressed fears similar to those of Nakayama’s staff, saying they would be less willing to report to work for a radiological or nuclear incident than for other types of emergencies. They also said they feel unprepared for the work they would be required to do, even though the risk of radiation exposure from treating contaminated patients outside the danger zone is considered negligible when workers are properly trained and wear protective equipment.
“The level of education for disasters across the board in American hospitals is really pretty terrible,” Cooper said. “People don’t have a good sense of how to focus on any disaster, let alone a radiation disaster. Radiation adds a level of complexity that most folks aren’t prepared to face.”
Cooper said hospital drills have improved in recent years, “but they occur far too seldom and they end far too quickly and they’re far too superficial to really prepare a hospital for a major disaster.”
“Shutting down part of the hospital’s work for a period of time to conduct a full-scale exercise, that’s daunting for a hospital,” he said. “Trying to ‘do the right thing’ and provide employees with in-depth disaster education across the board is not something they’re going to do unless it becomes a major regulatory mandate.”
William Fales, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Michigan State University and a regional medical director in southwest Michigan, said he has yet to see a hospital outside of a nuclear reactor’s emergency planning zone conduct a drill for a nuclear or radiological emergency.
In the courses Fales teaches for medical professionals, he has seen firsthand what little baseline knowledge many of them have. In one exercise they are treating mock bombing victims when they are suddenly told that the explosive was a dirty bomb packed with radioactive material. Typically they drop everything, run the patients outside and decontaminate them. But that reflects a lack of knowledge of a basic principle — that medical workers should treat a patient’s life-threatening traumatic injuries from a bomb blast before worrying about radiological decontamination.
“It’s amazing,” Fales said. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction because they hear the word ‘radiation.’ ... Imagine what would happen if, God forbid, we had a real terrorist bombing and a rumor started on TV that it was a dirty bomb. How many potentially salvageable trauma patients would be compromised by that reaction?”
Health workers made a different mistake at a recent radiation emergency conference sponsored by the CDC. When a workshop leader in a white decontamination suit asked nurses to practice cutting the garments off a mock contamination patient, one volunteer slid the scissors quickly from ankle to torso. That could send radioactive debris flying, the leader warned. The more careful approach took about two minutes—a long time if hundreds are awaiting assistance.
Knowing when a patient has been contaminated versus exposed to radiation is an important distinction that is acquired with simple training. “If you put a chicken in a microwave and cook it, it comes out a rubbery chicken, but it doesn’t come out contaminated,” Fales said. “It’s been irradiated, but it’s not radioactive.”
Fales said few participants in his training courses think about doing a quick survey with a radiation detector to verify the existence of contamination. At many hospitals, most workers don’t even know where the Geiger-Müller counter is kept.
Facing a worst-case emergency
The American Medical Association devoted the March issue of its journal, Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, to the No. 1 scenario on the federal government’s list of 15 planning scenarios for emergency preparedness: a nuclear explosion equivalent to the force of a 10-kiloton trinitrotoluene (TNT) blast on a major population center.
Using Washington as an example, one study estimated that 180,000 hospital beds could be needed after such a detonation and that 61,000 of those patients could require intensive care. But Washington typically has only about 1,000 vacant beds — and there are only about 9,400 vacant intensive care unit beds in the entire United States.
After a nuclear blast, hospitals probably would fill with trauma patients. Later, others would arrive with acute radiation syndrome, which can take days to manifest and affects multiple organ systems. Without supportive care, about 50 percent of people exposed to 3.5 Gray, a measure of radiation dose, would die. Proper care would almost double the exposure level at which 50 percent would survive, but only a small fraction of American medical professionals have training and expertise in treating radiation injury.
Given that not enough beds would be available, hospitals and first responders would have to choose which patients to save. Authors of the journal articles recommend basing those decisions in part on how much radiation exposure patients have received and treating only those with a reasonable chance of surviving. “It’s very hard to turn someone away who needs medical care who comes to your hospital,” Cooper said. “I don’t think any American hospital is prepared to do this kind of triage.”
The staff would be hampered by a shortage of the laboratory equipment needed to help evaluate so many patients, a lack of approved devices to rapidly quantify the level of radiation exposure and a lack of approved medicines to counter the cellular effects of radiation. About $200 million in federal funding has been invested since 2008 to develop diagnostics and treatments, but HHS officials say most are still years away from approval.
Even getting the protective measures that do exist, including potassium iodide, where they are needed is a challenge. Michigan has developed a round-the-clock dispatch system with ready-to-go medical packs designed for a range of emergencies and stored at 16 sites around the state. Four of those sites stock radiological countermeasures.
“We think we’re one of the few states that’s really designed a statewide system that can deliver these countermeasures,” Fales said. In the case of one particularly expensive drug provided by the federal government, “my sense is in a lot of states it’s sitting in a warehouse in the state capital, hopefully secure and warm. On a Saturday night if something goes boom in a location on another side of the state, how long will it take to get it to where it’s needed?”
Improving future response
One of the top priorities in preparing for a major nuclear disaster is readying ordinary citizens for the role they will have to play. “The common misperception is any nuclear blast means everybody’s vaporized,” McDonald said. “That’s just wrong.”
But experts say the government has done little to educate the public about its responsibilities.
When police and fire departments have run nuclear exercises in conjunction with federal authorities, “they haven’t included the public,” McDonald said. “They’ve basically treated it like a classified event.”
The motivation might be to safeguard the public from fear and panic, McDonald said, but “it does almost no good for the federal government to be talking about this with the top officers and not have the public understand what to do.” Although government Web sites including ready.gov and cdc.gov contain useful preparedness information, there is no single Web site the public can turn to for up-to-the-minute public health information in disasters.
One of the crucial things the public must know is when to evacuate and when to shelter underground or in a heavily constructed building. Yet making decisions on sheltering and evacuation and communicating those decisions to the public is precisely what the Homeland Security report found government agencies aren’t inadequately prepared to do.
Sheltering in place could make a major difference in how many people live or die, because the danger of fallout decreases rapidly as radioactive elements decay and debris is dispersed. The dose rate drops 90 percent every seven hours.
“You can’t wait until the event to put out this information,” said James James, director of the American Medical Association’s Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response.
Many experts predict that without more education, people probably would flee as many are doing in Tokyo and as many Americans did after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. An estimated 144,000 people — many times more than the number advised to do so — needlessly left the area because of fear and inadequate information.
“Such an exodus would extend panic and devastation far beyond the locus of the event, draining food, water, medicines, gasoline and other resources from surrounding communities and potentially causing gridlock that would severely compromise many elements of the official disaster response,” according to a modeling study published by University of Chicago researcher Michael Meit and colleagues in the same issue of the journal.
Not knowing what to do would be especially harmful to those who are least likely to be able get out of harm’s way: children and the elderly, people with disabilities, and patients with chronic illnesses requiring regular treatment. The federal government enacted a number of reforms after elderly and disabled people died after Hurricane Katrina. But those reforms aren’t necessarily reflected in critical front-line emergency plans. A federal court in California recently found the city of Los Angeles violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws for failing to consider the needs of the disabled in its emergency response plans.
Eric Toner, a senior associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore, said the key to protecting as many people as possible during an emergency is offering them frank communication about what is known and unknown.
“Nature abhors a vacuum. If credible officials aren’t out there constantly, that void will get filled with people who don’t know what they’re talking about or have different agendas.”
Still, there is no guarantee the public will act on information once they get it. Several years ago Michigan, like many other states, sent vouchers for potassium iodide to people living within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant. The goal was to give them the medication free of charge from local pharmacies, so they wouldn’t risk their lives searching for the drug in an emergency, when they should be sheltering in place or evacuating.
But only about 6 percent of the residents picked up their allotted supply, said Fales, the Michigan regional medical director, a rate that’s similar to some other states. “So much for pre-event planning,” he concluded.