Ahead of the curve

2011-03-17

in Geek stuff, Politics, Science

When confronted with a crisis like the ongoing nuclear accident in Japan, individuals are faced with some difficult choices. Usually, the authorities tell them to take very modest precautions, like not drying your laundry outdoors if you live close to the plant. Individuals themselves can take additional precautions, but risk causing knock-on effects if they do.

An obvious example is trying to move farther from the accident site. It probably improves your personal safety to be farther away, but may be an ineffective approach if everyone tries to do it at once. That actually creates a stronger personal incentive to take early action. If you leave early – before most people are excessively concerned – you might actually make it. If you wait until the government tells everyone to leave, you might find yourself stuck in a relatively chaotic mass of scared people.

A less dramatic example is avoiding certain potentially risky activities, like consuming products from pastured animals. After nuclear accidents in other places, things like milk, wool, and meat have been contaminated. It is pretty clear why that is a risk – animals that graze across a wide area of pasture get exposed to whatever level of fallout has accumulated over all that land. The same is probably true of fish and other marine organisms that either filter large amounts of water or eat other animals that do.

All told, the situation in a disaster area may be a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma. The best choice for you may be to flee and/or take precautions, but doing so could cause problems for others. Furthermore, trying to do either of those things at the same time as everyone else is more difficult than taking action before others do. That risks creating a ‘run on the bank’ scenario, however, as people farther and farther from the disaster area rush to deplete pharmacies of potassium iodide, or to purchase air-filtering equipment.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia March 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I found a glancing reference today (which I’ve been trying to verify but so far unable to do so) that a substantial number of workers at Fukushima Daiichi were caught by the tsunami on their way home to check on their families after the earthquake. In many such events appreciating the nature of the incident is vital before the necessary precautions or decision to flee the area can be sensibly taken but where communications or power are down this can be very difficult to do.

In the context of airborne /waterborne radioactive particles in the Fukushima district, moving away from the area involves close consideration of transport method, prevailing weather conditions and how firm your knowledge of the remaining road and rail transport infrastructure after the natural disasters is. It also requires a lot of forethought about the intended destination and its capacity to support incomers after the other disasters. Those going before the government advises evacuation and before the infrastructure to handle disaster migrants is in place, need the resources to tide their dependents over until support is available.

In what is already a disaster area, there isn’t just the case of ‘run on the bank’ scenario for commercial resources but also the risk that those unnecessarily self-evacuating take up critical public resources needed for migrants from critically affected areas of the precursor disasters and divert the resources necessary for further organised evacuations, should the nuclear incident worsen.

Antonia March 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I did a lot of reading on risk planning the other week and it turned out one area in the US had a fantastic and detailed civic emergency evacuation plan – which depended on the availability of a contractor who had been commissioned also by the neighbouring county (unbeknownst to the first) despite only possessing the resources to assist one or the other.

In a future disaster, premature evacuation by the second county where an issue hadn’t yet necessitated removal of their citizens from the area could result in a far worse human disaster. If the damage spread to the second county, both populations could be caught half-evacuated or less, while appropriate response timing could have allowed the entire area to be safer.

Of course, in a very widespread fast-moving disaster the lack of alternative providers would have told ill for both.

. June 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

This includes the existence of a nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi. Mr. Terada and other advisers said they did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.

If they had known earlier, they would have seen Speedi’s early projections that radiation from the Fukushima plant would be blown northwest, said one critic, Hiroshi Kawauchi, a lawmaker in Mr. Kan’s own party. Mr. Kawauchi said that many of the residents around the plant who evacuated went north, on the assumption that winds blew south during winter in that area. That took them directly into the radioactive plume, he said – exposing them to the very radiation that they were fleeing.

Mr. Kawauchi said that when he asked officials at the Ministry of Education, which administers Speedi, why they did not make the information available to the prime minister in those first crucial days, they replied that the prime minister’s office had not asked them for it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/13/world/asia/13japan.html?pagewanted=2

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