Tohoku Quake & Tsunami Monitoring: "Full Metal Alchemy"

 Tohoku Quake & Tsunami Monitoring: "Full Metal Alchemy"

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Champagne Charities

Many good people want to make a donation to help the victims of the quake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, and I must urgently advise you how to allocate your money so that it is not misappropriated, rerouted or used to reward high-paid NGO executives.

In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, after doing rescue work in worst-hit Khao Lak, Thailand, I rode on the back of a bus (because my unwashed clothes and body reeked of decomposed bodies) to Krabi in western Thailand to check on the situation there. Once we arrived, I went directly to a hotel to take a hot shower, and was dismayed to see Western staffers from a major charity sitting in the lobby drinking Lanson champagne - right in public view of passersby on the sidewalk. Only about 30 steps away, volunteers and doctors were sorting through bodybags to identify victims. These real rescue workers, as opposed to high-end charity executives, had no choice but to eat cheap box lunches in an open area where everything stank of death.

The hotel receptionist told me that I had to pay high-season rates because all the charities were paying for top-dollar suites. The room I got was the last one available and had no hot water, so my payment was futile since cold water does not remove the oils from decomposed bodies. The next day I moved to a rundown guesthouse where an old lady provided me a large thermos of boiled water for my shampoo and bath and fed me a simple but decent meal of rice and wild herbs.

Before that, in Khao Lak, in a parking area with a bulletin board with photo postings of bloated rotting corpses, a Mercedes limo pulled up, and a slim tall blonde woman got out with a European NGO staffer in a custom-tailored Italian suit. She was laughing loudly. I went up to her, and said as politely as possible in a hushed voice: "Could you show a little decency? These people are searching for the bodies of their children."

So be warned. Even hospital administrators can be crooks. Give money to known and reliable emergency workers from your area who heading to Fukushima. Donate only to church staffers in Japan who can be trusted not to push Bibles onto shellshocked victims or pocket the cash. Right now, a German pastor who worked with me during the 1995 subway gassing is trying to locate our old friends in the Japan National Council of Churches who have a proven spotless record of honesty, personal commitment and self-sacrifice over many decades. These are the sort of people who can be trusted to use the funds wisely and with genuine compassion.

Otherwise, wait to make a contribution during the recovery and reconstruction phase, because right now the money can't buy much in the affected region and local people are working in solidarity to help each other, so your money could end up being a distraction.

I personally enjoy champagne, but this is not the moment for celebration or wasteful spending.

The Iodine Panic

In areas downwind of Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, it is advisable for emergency workers and residents to take potassium iodide (KI) tablets, which normally contain a 130 mg dosage. KI acts to protect the thyroid gland, which naturally tends to absorb iodine, thereby pre-empting the body from capturing radioactive iodine-131. The thyroid controls the endocrine system, which runs your immune system.

People living farther afield have no compelling reason to consume potassium iodide tablets. By the time radiation arrives over Hawaii or mainland USA, radioactive iodine will have been diluted to levels far below threshold danger levels. Hoarding or pre-emptive consumption of KI will deplete the limited supply for victims close to the nuclear site and in real need.

For those not living in northeast Japan, there is good reason not to consume KI tablets. Its side effects impact the parotid gland, which produces saliva, and may also lead to heart palpitations, vomiting, rashes, and swelling in the neck and throat. These side effects especially impact adults over 40 years of age.

As for the Tokyo and Kanto Plain area, prevailing winds in the springtime season will continue to drive most of the radioactive particles eastward over the Pacific. In the event of a more concentrated fallout, health authorities are likely to prepare doses to be administered, especially to school children.

The Japanese diet offers a steady source of trace amounts of KI, which occurs naturally in the kelp used to make the soup base known as dashi. Thus the national population has some level of natural protection.

Neutron Absorbers

In answer to queries about neutron absorbers, here is a brief layman's introduction.

Boron-10 is the most common neutron-absorbing metal used to reduce radiation levels in nuclear plants, especially in emergencies like the one in Fukushima. B-10 is one of two isotopes that comprise natural boron, but is usually refined before use in nuclear facilities. B-10 is mixed into the coolant water for nuclear reactors to help prevent meltdowns; and boric acid, somewhat less effective, is also sprayed on contaminated areas. These procedures are being done at Fukushima 1, but the emergency team on-site is running low on boron supplies.

The absorption process works as follows: When a neutron is emitted from uranium, it moves at high speed and collides into a boron-10 atom. B-10 is deficient with only 5 of its own neutrons, as compared with more prevalent and more stable boron-11, which has six neutrons. The fast-moving neutron impacts itself into boron-10 and splits the atom into lithium-7 and a nucleus of helium-4. The neutron is thus neutralized.

As for the "radiation blanket" used in China's uranium mines, although we have no way of verifying the formula, it is probably an admixture of some of the following elements: samarian-149, hafnium, gadolinium and, much less likely, cadmium.

The international community needs to identify surplus stocks of these neutron blockers, which should be offered to the Japanese nuclear-safety authorities.

The Home Front

As for homemade alchemy, it is not advisable to be painting one's home with boric acid, which is normally used for stopping ants. In large amounts, it can be toxic to your pets and children.

If in the unlikely event of fallout of high concentrations or a "radiation spike", the more effective defense whenever outdoors is to wear a cheap disposable raincoat, plastic bags around the shoes and a fine-mesh face mask. These should be disposed of properly in a plastic bag identified with a bright marker as "Low-Level Contamination", and left outdoors and not brought into living quarters.

Cesium, the isotope with the longest half-life, will appear only in low levels and as a long-term threat. Once absorbed into soils, cesium-137 is taken up by the roots of plants such as grasses and grain crops. After eating large amounts of contaminated grains over months, animals and humans will gradually concentrate the cesium in their tissues and organs, making milk and breast milk unfit for consumption, while adding to cancer risk.

In event of atmospheric contamination, it will take weeks for the radiation-spike scenario to play out, so there will be plenty of time for public-health preparation and the location of non-contaminated food supplies. If your town or neighborhood has no warning system, it is important to inquire with the local weather station if they have equipment to measure "sievert hours", which indicate the level of exposure time that is dangerous to health. You and your neighbors may want to visit city council members urging them to organize a local radiation warning and an emergency advisory system.

Boron and GE

Long before becoming president, the actor Ronald Reagan was the host of early television's General Electric Theater, which was sponsored by soap powder company Boraxo. The borax (sodium borate) mines of the American West also produced boron used in making separation rods for nuclear reactors. GE designed the Fukushima reactors that partially melted down. So where is Boraxo now that we need it?

End Note: The title of this Monitor is taken from "Full Metal Alchemist", a manga and anime focused on the secretive abuse of advanced science in the service of a dominant elite and the war industry.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, has covered the earthquakes in San Francisco and Kobe, participated in the rescue operation immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and led the field research for an architectural report on structural design flaws that led to the tsunami death toll in Thailan