Health Risks to U.S. From Japanese Nuclear Crisis Seen as Low


Although tsunamis are much rarer in the Atlantic Ocean because of the different geology relative to the Pacific Rim, they are not unheard of. Lisbon and other towns along the Portuguese coast suffered major damage from a tsunami that followed an estimated magnitude-9.0 quake in 1755.

Also, according to the Maine Geological Survey, a tsunami struck eastern Canada in 1929, killing 25 to 50 people, with wave heights approaching 90 feet at the heads of some long, narrow bays that acted as funnels.

Medical Disaster Plans in Place

The NRC requires that nuclear facilities develop plans for dealing with radiation leaks into the surrounding environment, but gives them considerable latitude in determining the appropriate response to a given scenario.

Robert Rathie, an attorney involved with the independent committee monitoring safety at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, noted that every plant faces different risks based on the local geography.

Flexibility in the emergency plans makes sense, Rathie told MedPage Today in an interview.

Emergency practice sessions, overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, occur at least twice a year at the Diablo Canyon plant, he noted.

But state and local emergency services take on more of the safety planning for the community, with oversight by FEMA.

Key information, such as evacuation routes, for communities near a nuclear power plant can typically be found in the phone book, Rathie noted.

But "most people don't look for it until something like the Japanese nuclear emergency gets their attention," he said.

Indeed, many states may not have been giving nuclear disaster preparedness enough attention, according to a study released online today in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

The survey of state departments of health indicated that those with a nuclear power plant were better prepared for a major nuclear emergency, but most still weren't prepared enough.

The 2010 survey predated the Japanese triple threat of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant equipment malfunction.

It reviewed written radiation response plans for the majority of states, most of which detailed communications issues during an emergency.

But the medical side of planning fell short.

Fewer than half of the states surveyed had written plans for radiation exposure assessment, environmental sampling, human specimen collection and analysis, and human health assessment.

These are all critical aspects of protecting people from the harmful effects of a radiation disaster, study author Sharon M. Watkins, PhD, of the Florida Department of Health, explained to MedPage Today.

State budget crunches have probably contributed to the problem, since many states said they just didn't have enough resources for those capabilities, she noted.

Ahead of an actual emergency, there's little physicians and other individuals can do to prepare, Watkins noted.

Rather, the group recommended action at the federal and state level.

Preparation is Key

Federal "best practices" for collaborations to get better-prepared states to share their knowledge with less-prepared states would be a good idea, Watkins suggested, noting that every state carries some risk of a nuclear disaster whether a transport accident, nuclear medicine problems, or a "dirty bomb" attack.

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