Implications for the U.S. of the Japan Disasters- update

In response to events of the past week in Japan, fresh attention is being  given to the need for effective leadership and the ready determination of  lead responsibilities in the event of a catastrophic event, especially one with major secondary effects.

US Flag flies in Scottsville

Image by MEL810 via Flickr

Who Would Be in Charge if it Happened Here?

Congressman Markey’s Letter to President Obama: Who’s In Charge If Nuclear Disaster Hits America? Greenpeace.org, March 13.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) raised concerns today that the United States does not have a coordinated plan to deal with a similar nuclear disaster as that which is currently happening in Japan. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, Rep. Markey, who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, pointed out that currently no single federal agency appears to have designated command in the event of a nuclear disaster here on U.S. soil.

“I am concerned that it appears that no agency sees itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster,” … “In stark contrast to the scenarios contemplated for oil spills and hurricanes, there is no specificity for emergency coordination and command in place for a response to a nuclear disaster.”

The federal government’s nuclear accident response plan — the Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex to the National Response Plan — says that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “is responsible for coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” Yet the plan also indicates that, depending on the type of nuclear or radiological incident, the coordinating agency may instead be the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), or the U.S. Coast Guard.

Where Would Expert Leadership Come From?

Nuclear Agency’s Assessment Lags. Wall St. Journal, March 17. Some selected quotes:

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s failure to quickly and accurately assess the potential danger posed by Japan’s nuclear disaster is raising questions about the United Nations organization’s ability to respond to such crises.
Teams of nuclear experts from the U.S. and elsewhere rushed to Japan after this past Friday’s earthquake there, but the IAEA is only Thursday sending its director general, Yukiya Amano, with a team. IAEA officials say the agency is doing everything that it can and that it has been frustrated by a lack of cooperation from Japan.
The agency’s inability to quickly dispatch a team of experts has made it almost entirely reliant on the Japanese government for information at a time when much of the world is looking to the IAEA for an impartial analysis of the risks and likely outcome of the nuclear emergency.

Flaws in Japan’s Leadership Deepen Sense of Crisis. NY Times. March 16

Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed or mattered so much.

Wanted: Better Risk Assessment and More Effective Regulation

In the past few days, several commentators have discussed how complex and interconnected life is these days and on the need to do more than let business interests run unbridled.  Here are a few examples of thoughtful commentary:

Robert Reich in the Huff Post, March 15. Safety on the Cheap.

Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms. This is why it’s necessary to have such things as government regulators, why regulators must be independent of the industries they regulate, and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations.

The Costly Lessons from the Long Tail of Improbable Disaster, by S. Pearlstein. Wash Post, March 16.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is not that we should roll back the clock and return to a simpler and less interconnected existence. It is, rather, that more attention must be paid to the extra risks that come with all the advantages of modern life. There may be a significant cost involved in preventing low-probability disasters, or having sufficient infrastructure to deal with them when they cannot be prevented. But as we are reminded by this week’s events in Japan, that cost is likely to be less than the cost of ignoring those risks and doing nothing at all.

Harold Meyerson, Wash. Post, March 16, From Japan’s devastation, our Lisbon moment?

What the systemic failures on Wall Street, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Japan should teach us is that the need for active, disinterested governmental regulation is rooted not in any radical impulse, as the American right continually contends, but in a sober, conservative assessment of the human capacity for mistake and self-delusion, not to mention avarice and chicanery. We can underestimate the risks of a particular undertaking, even when we think we have guarded against them. We fall prey to our own sense of infallibility, often as a way to rationalize what is otherwise a risky endeavor. When those risks go bad, the consequences often fall on those who didn’t take those risks themselves, as the millions of Americans who lost their jobs thanks to Wall Street’s follies can attest.

As of March 17, articles are beginning to appear about the problems that the national government of Japan has been having in its effort to regulate the nuclear power industry in their county.  Some articles are only available in full with a subscription to the WSJournal.

One thought on “Implications for the U.S. of the Japan Disasters- update

  1. This is a great blog entry! First, as someone who has spent much of his 34+ years of Federal Government Service in Emergency Management and Response, I believe the Japanese are doing a great job with their response to this compound disaster. Many around the globe would do well, in examining the heroics and successes in the aftermath of this compound disaster. It is unfair to compare this incident to Katrina, the BP disaster of last year, or even to our own Three Mile Island. As great as America is and as much as we suffered through/recovered from natural as well as human-engineered disasters/catastrophes in the past, we do not have to contend with catastrophic incidents too often. The Japanese have had to contend with multiple long-lasting catastrophes, multiple devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in the last century, including what was inflicted upon them during the latter days of WWII.

    After reading some of the commentary above, regarding what if a similar Catastrophic Radiological or Nuclear Release (from one of 104 operating facilities in the U.S.) happened here, I both agree and disagree with the authors of the opinions quoted or proffered in this blog entry. Much criticism of the Federal Government’s handling of disasters like Katrina, the BP/Deepwater Horizon and other disasters in the not-so-distant past, has been tinged with political or environmental activist rhetoric. Yes, some of the individual failures may be due to collusion and other unethical behavior of regulatory or response entities. However, the most striking failure on the part of the Federal Government during its handling of responses or in the realm of prevention, is that too little Federal monies and manpower has been set aside for prevention (regulatory oversight) and training for or execution of response to non-terrorist related incidents. Unlike, many of the esteemed and erudite commentators in this blog entry, I do not think that there is a conspiracy or inadequate planning / regulatory process, nor do I think there should be less regulation of/less cooperation with hazardous industries in the private sector.

    However, I do agree with most of Rep. Markey’s comments regarding no single federal agency appears to have designated command in the event of a nuclear disaster here on U.S. soil. This is because we have planned for the sake of planning and have created too many guidance/policy documents which protect too many sacred cows or fail to properly address who’s in charge of a particular response. Some of the division of Incident/Unified Command leadership is necessary; DOD should lead the response when the source is a DOD-owned or operated resource – there is no doubt in my mind; the issues are expertise and the protection of lives and National Security; but the issue of when the response involves non-DOD resources, e.g. Nuclear Power Plants, the response should be lead by one designated entity, the one with the most experience and expertise, not by jurisdiction (as under the National Contingency Plan of Oil and Hazardous Substances or plans which have not been absorbed into the National Response Framework.

    IMO, the NCP is a better response document, but that’s another argument for another day…

    Again, thanks Claire for a wonderful Blog and for all you do for disaster response / recovery.

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