I find it hard to think much about anything besides the earthquake and devastation in northeast Japan. It’s a place I’ve never been. I don’t speak the language.

In trying to learn something from this, it makes sense to review what to do in case of a nuclear disaster, the kind of thing that should never happen. Today millions of people on the planet are concerned about the radioactivity and what’s happening to the power plants without electricity and the usual cooling systems, with failed backup generators and tons of uncertainty.

Yesterday evening CNN had Bill Nye, the science guy, on TV telling us about nuclear plant meltdowns. This reminded me of my children when they were children and watched his good show. Not helpful, now. (Sorry, Bill.)

The problem is the dearth of reliable information on what to do about nuclear reactors that are or were or are intermittently releasing radiation into the atmosphere. The Times says the Danger Posed by Radioactivity in Japan is Hard to Assess. Scientific American offers expert details on reactors, instructive on the physics but not exactly useful for people wondering what they ought to do in an emergency.

Here is what I could find in the way of practical links in English:

CDC on radiation emergencies and potassium iodide (and Prussian blue, not recommended without a doctor’s supervision; of historical interest to hematologists, for reasons of iron staining in bone marrow specimens, and others);

EPA on Responding to Radiological Emergencies (with subpages, mainly on how the EPA and officials would work) and What You Can Do (clear info on reporting a problem; little advice on what to do in case one happens);

FDA on potassium iodide (w/ info on doses);

FEMA on Nuclear Power Plant Emergency. This site seems to have the most practical advice on what to do during a nuclear event;

Health Physics Society doesn’t seem to cover this topic (please correct me if I’m wrong);

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Preparing for and Responding to a Radiological Emergency (recommendations to check radio or TV for updates seem outdated as they would be problematic in case of widespread power failures).

To be thorough, I searched what some would call the blogosphere –  medical and physics – for updates on this, and found essentially nothing. Weekend effect?

My main observation is that publicly-available information on this topic is woefully inadequate. Surely, health officials around the world are taking notes.

The other main point, as is explained on the CDC’s site, is that potassium iodide (KI) can protect from absorption of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland. This would reduce the risk of thyroid cancer developing later on, but doesn’t protect from harmful effects of other isotopes.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of northeastern Japan.

all links accessed 3/13/11

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