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Redefining Disaster

Tragedy in Japan is redefining the term Disaster

Multiple natural disasters resulting in technological failure and further devastation...An earthquake of historical magnitude, a ferocious tsunami, and failure of at least three nuclear power plants. The only thing missing from the global tragedy unfolding in Japan is Godzilla.

Japan may well be suffering the type of event that only us cataclysmic/apocalyptic emergency management thinkers can dream up for our next training event. And having been accused of being “too apocalyptic” myself I can appreciate this line of thinking.

The earthquake, tsunami, and resultant damage to nuclear power pants in Japan have been compared to the earthquake that crushed Haiti, the tsunami that washed out Sri lanka, and the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl;  with these comparisons many people are drawn conclusions of disease and radioactive fallout. With all this in mind I think it's important that we look at some differences between Japan in other areas of the globe before making any doomsday predictions.

 Many sources have predicted and warned about emerging infectious disease and disease spread related to the situation in Japan. Many sources have also cited the disease spread and contamination concerns attributed to the natural disasters in Haiti and Sri Lanka. When it comes to evaluating the earthquake and tsunami in comparison to natural disasters in Haiti and Sri Lanka we have to remember some important differences between these areas and Japan. Japan has superior infrastructure. That is, Japan enjoys a good healthcare system, a culturally stable state of health among its population and excellent infrastructure which includes sanitation.  I do not believe that long-term disease spread (as has been predicted) or new emerging diseases will come from Japan as a result of the devastation and death.

There have been a number of predictions regarding the radiation spread within the country of Japan itself and to other nations… most notably the United States West Coast. The historical references drawn to make these predictions have included nuclear detonations over Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. Some sources have looked at more recent nuclear events such as Three Mile Island here in the United States and Chernobyl in this former Soviet Union. The first point to make on these nuclear fallout predictions is that the nuclear event in Japan is unprecedented. Never before have we seen multiple nuclear reactors with their fuel rods exposed, containment breached, and suffering such catastrophic failure. This alone should be cautionary to making any predictions.  I believe that any comparison to the nuclear detonations during World War II to be inappropriate. Nuclear weapons detonate high above the ground and place radioactive material higher in the atmosphere… which allows that material to spread a greater distance. That does not seem to be the case in Japan now. Radioactive fallout from these reactors seems to be contained within 50 to 100 miles.  In order to compare to the more recent nuclear power plant events we should review a little about each case.

March 28, 1979 at the 3 Mile Island nuclear power facility: a power failure and water pump failure resulted in loss of reactor cooling which spilled the Xeon 133 and iodine 131 onto the containment room floor. There was very little radiation detected outside the structure and no reports of injuries or long-term illness as a result. Despite that, the psychological impact was and remains high.

April 1986 Chernobyl: a power instability resulted in a steam explosion powerful enough to lift the reactors 90 ton  cover. The explosion resulted in 31 deaths, 135,000 people evacuated, and a release of iodine 131, cesium 137 in Xeon. Perhaps the most important  implication for Japan related to the Chernobyl event is the recovery and stabilization of the situation.

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