Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Waiting and Wondering

The hardest part of this story is sitting and waiting for information. If you have the luxury of time, you sit and wait for the latest news. What’s happening at the reactors? Are we going to be all right? The questions have me up early in the morning looking for answers and finding only more and more questions.

How do you even ask that question, are we going to be all right, when you know the answer is “Nobody knows.” Is it irresponsible to ask? Should we just sit patiently and wait for the “authorities” to tell us what we need to know?

While we wait, we note things are not going well.

A UK team known as the International Rescue Corps has flown to Japan to help out, but has been turned back because the British Embassy there refused to take responsibility for them. It remains to be seen whether the Embassy worries are legitimate. On the surface, one has to wonder how anybody would allow people willing to risk their lives, moving into the wreckage and dealing with digging out hundreds of bodies, to be turned away. To what good purpose? Just what does it mean to “be responsible” for these volunteers? Obviously, one wants to keep do-gooders from getting in the way of serious rescue operations. How does one determine, though, what a serious rescue operation is, exactly?

Meanwhile, the Emperor has addressed the nation. Now why the hell did they do that? Bring him in. Strikes me as a super dumb move, given the history of Japanese emperors stepping in. I don’t remember that ever happening before. Last time was when his father, Hirohito, announced the end of the war and asked the people to “bear the unbearable.” When the Emperor talks, the fact that he talks is the message.

CNN is broadcasting the need to “reisei.” 冷静. Calm down.

Little Japanese lesson here:

冷静にお聞き下さい. (Reisei ni o kiki kudasai.) “Please listen to calm,” says the Prime Minister.

Right. Let’s all calm down.

冷静に行動してください. (Reisei ni kōdō shite kudasai.) Let’s all behave calmly.

So how about some more information.

Here’s the information I do have.

Most disturbing news was the removal of the last fifty employees from the plant. In the absence of precise knowledge of the state of the reactors, one must assume that the 800 employees who left for safety reasons were not dismissed lightly. They were not just floor sweepers, as somebody pointed out. They were crucial to the operation of the plant. That suggests that the fifty who remained may well be sacrificing their lives to prevent a meltdown. Or at least a high risk of cancer and other problems of radiation. At least the government is covering its ass. It has upped the legal definition of what a radiation dose is. So more people can now go in and risk their lives without breaking the law? What would we do without the burocrats?

And now we hear these fifty were also relieved of their jobs for about an hour when the ground radiation spiked. Why would you send them out also? Doesn’t this suggest they are throwing in the towel?

At this stage even asking these questions you risk pouring fuel on the fires of worry. The authorities have little to no credibility, having been found lying before “to prevent panic.” If there is a clearer example of the practical side of ethical behavior, I can’t imagine what it would be.

At the Daichi (Number One) Plant in Fukushima there are six reactors. One, two and three are said to be “experiencing problems” and the cooling systems at five and six are “not functioning well.” That leaves reactor four. And it was reactor four that had the fire on Wednesday. I’d like to hear what the fire did to the fourth reactor, but all the news I can find at the moment says there was a fire and nothing more.

I understand the only way to prevent a meltdown is to get water in to cool down the rods, but because the plant is leaking radiation there is a no-fly order over the plant – and that’s the end of the attempt to drop water on them from helicopters. What is the consequence of that? The chief spokesman for the event announced the other day that even pouring water on the plan is risky, if they do it too much too quickly. But now with a no-fly zone in effect, that hardly seems to matter.

As we watch, we learn. At one point, it was “radiation” that we worried about. Now, we know it’s about “sieverts.” You measure risk in terms of microsieverts and millisieverts. The average person receives about three millisieverts (3 mSv) per year. That’s apparently a very safe level. At Fukushima workers are getting about 400 mSv per hour. That, we are told, is about 160 times what one gets in one year. That’s CNN’s math, not mine. CNN says, “So it is high.” My math would lead me to believe Glen Beck is right. God is pissed at us, and maybe this is the end of the world after all. Fortunately I never draw conclusions on the basis of my math.

Back down to earth, 3 mSv is what you get from a CAT scan. What you get from a chest X-ray is about .1 mSv (and I suddenly feel a whole lot better about X-rays.) You need about 1000 mSv to get seriously sick.

Apparently there are two kinds of separate concerns. One is “total body radiation,” the kind you get from a breakdown at a nuclear power plant. I understand some workers at the plant are being treated for radiation sickness. (Does that mean 1000 mSv? How did that happen?) This is not good news.

The other is the radiation that you ingest, from food or water or by breathing in. That’s the kind we’re most worried about at the moment, because there is some small degree of radiation being leaked into the air.

So here are the names of the things to be concerned about:

Cesium 137. It causes cancer, and has a half life of 30 years. That means whatever cesium is released is going to be in the ground water and other places for the next generation.

Then there’s Iodine 131. Like Cesium, it doesn’t hurt you unless you ingest it. So it’s possible to work with these elements, and chemists and others do all the time, as long as you keep them contained. Iodine 131 has a half life of only eight days, so it’s far less threatening. It does cause thyroid cancer, though, in sufficient doses.

What people are doing is stocking up on Potassium Iodide (KI), because it blocks the intake of Iodine 131. You take it before and after exposure to radiation. There’s a run on KI, no surprise, even in the States, and that’s almost certainly a panic response, and not a reasonable one. On the other hand, there’s an irony to this panic in that KI, while preventing the intake of Iodine into the thyroid, does nothing about the intake of Cesium 137. If you want to join the panic, the brand name in the U.S. is “Iodoral”. It comes in 90 tablet sizes. If you can get it, which you probably can’t.

Or Strontium 90 (Sr 90), the third bad guy. It causes leukemia.

Or Plutonium 239 (Pu 239), the fourth. It causes lung cancer even in tiny amounts. And it has a half life of 24,000 years.

Why are we messing with plutonium?

That question for another day.

Now I realize that the average person is neither interested in this level of detail, nor capable of focusing on it, unless it is brought home it is happening here and now to him or her, but it is disconcerting that the “authorities” are announcing “the levels of radiation have fallen” without ever revealing which of any or all of these elements are in question, and how much. Even the world’s experts are not privy to this information.

And when we do learn things, we also learn we have so much to learn about what the numbers mean. This, for example, from the Nuclear Energy Institute: “At 8 p.m. EDT March 14, a dose rate of 1,190 millirem per hour was observed. Six hours later, the dose rate was 60 millirem per hour, IAEA said.”

That sounds good. Don’t you think?

This is what is so seriously disconcerting about the nature of any crisis. How do we get the people in the know to both fight the problem and explain the problem at the same time? That’s why we have governments. To make things happen and put resources where they are needed. Unfortunately, governments have other goals than giving information. Like withholding information so as to avoid panic.

Which leaves us dependent on heroes. People who do things because they know they have to be done. I suspect we are going to be talking for a long time about the men (and I don’t know if there are women there as well) who are probably giving their lives at this moment.

Meanwhile thousands are flooding into Haneda and Narita to fly out of Tokyo. That includes some of my family members who went to the airport five hours early to contend with the lines last night and are, I trust, now on their way to Oregon. Others are staying behind to care for the dogs, the cats, the goldfish and the turtle.

Taku sent some money yesterday for relief. I hope it gets put to good use.

Just thinking about the whole idea of giving money to Japan because it needs it worse than we do is probably the most sobering thought I’ve had in a long time.

A very agonizing time, this is.

Focus on the face of that soldier who just rescued the baby.


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