What will we in the U.S. learn from the events in Japan?

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times over the past few days by family and friends, some who know I work in homeland security and emergency management, some who know I spent more than 12 years as an engineer at a nuclear power plant. My answers have generally started with “It’s a little hard to tell right now, but a year or two down the road when more is known about the response operations to the earthquake, tsunami, and what is still evolving at the nuclear power plants, I’m sure there will be plenty of lessons that will affect how we approach things in the U.S.”

My answers start that way because it is still too soon and too hard to tell what is truly going on there from here in the U.S. With regard to the earthquake, I believe we will learn a lot more about how well various structural designs, including those specifically designed to mitigate the effects of an earthquake, really behave in an earthquake this severe. From an engineer’s perspective, there are few substitutes for data from failure analysis of full-scale structures to tell you what will really happen, what variables may not have been considered, and how to design against a similar failure.

Certainly lessons will be learned about what went well and not so well regarding Japan’s response to the earthquake and tsunami. I think this will be particularly true with regard to the need to provide for the basic needs of so many displaced people resulting from what was largely a no-notice event.

Given what was learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita here in the U.S., Japan could have been more prepared. Lessons will also be learned from the recovery effort over and above Katrina in my mind because of the duel disaster’s effects on infrastructure. We will eventually find out if they were. The really important lessons there will likely take a while to define.

One thing that seems obvious to learn right away, more from what is happening at the nuclear power plants, than the earthquake, or tsunami, is the need to provide the public and the press with as much accurate, detailed information as quickly as it is available. Why? Because failure to do so will lead to an information gap that will be filled by speculation as has been readily apparent in the news stories. Personally, I want the information so I can make my own decisions regarding how bad things are. If it is in an area where I do not have expertise, I want experts to explain so they can help make me make sense of it by making comparisons to known effects. When I read about dangerously high radiation levels, I want to know exactly what they are. We all receive around 200 mrem of effective radiation dose from “background” radiation due to where we live and what type of structure we live in. The total effective dose equivalent I could receive annually at the plant I worked at as an occupational dose limit is set in 10CFR20.1201 at 5 rem/yr (0.05 Sv). Those are non-emergency limits and I did not worry about exposure. According to the EPA’s website (http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/health_effects.html) it would take a dose of around 50 rem to start having nausea from an acute exposure and a substantially higher dose for risk of death. Those are my reference points. With no information to compare, we are left to wonder what the real risk is.

A debate has already started here in the U.S. about whether our nuclear plants are really safe enough. They are designed with a design basis earthquake, a design basis flood, and design basis wind load in mind. In my mind there will be a policy debate coming at some point about whether the risk thresholds that have been accepted for a long time should be changed. Will plants need to assume two or three of these type of events to occur simultaneously now? I don’t believe that has been the case to this point, but it is what happened in Japan. As with anything that improves safety or preparedness, decreasing risk will increase cost. This isn’t just true for nuclear power plants, but for our communities as a whole and any of our infrastructures, like ports and mass transit systems.

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Author: Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs