Japan's Crisis: What You Need to Know

Disaster Expert Details the Risks, Response and Lessons to be Applied
While Japan's nuclear emergency puts local citizens at risk, there is much that organizations globally can learn from the crisis. "I hope that all of us look at this and ask 'What can I do to be better prepared?'" says Regina Phelps, disaster recovery expert.

With the world's attention focused on the growing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, Phelps says, now is the time for individuals and organizations to reflect on their own preparedness.

"I encourage people to look at their business continuity plans, their disaster recovery plans and say 'If even 25% of what happened to Japan were to happen to us, could we even recover?'"

In an exclusive interview on the disaster and how organizations can respond, Phelps discusses:

  • The real risks from Japan's nuclear crisis;
  • How individuals and organizations should respond;
  • What to expect in the weeks ahead.

Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and continuity planning. With over 26 years of experience, she has provided consultation and educational speaking services to clients in four continents. She is founder of Emergency Management & Safety Solutions, a consulting company specializing in emergency management, continuity planning and safety.

Who is Most at Risk?

TOM FIELD: Set our baseline here Regina. With the radiation leakage happening in Japan, who truly is at risk?

REGINA PHELPS: That's a great question, and certainly when you look at the media over the last couple of days, you'll see that, oh my goodness, there is a lot about radiation that is in the news. Who really is at risk in Japan are those individuals that are on the front lines working in that facility in effort to stop it from melting down. Those around the facility in an immediate proximity are also at risk. But then when you look at a 50-mile radius around the plant, those individuals are the ones that should be taking some precautions.

FIELD: Well, Regina, a couple of questions. First of all, what is considered immediate vicinity, and then second of what are individuals at risk?

PHELPS: Great question. Immediate vicinity really is a one-kilometer radius around that plant, so individuals who are involved in rescue efforts in working with that plant in an effort to stop a meltdown -- those are the folks that are really at risk. When you look at what they are at risk of, there is a syndrome of course called acute radiation sickness, and individuals who are exposed to the extensive amount of radiation do have the possibility of having that syndrome. Where we have seen this historically over time has really been with the atomic bombs that occurred over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then of course we also saw it in a more contemporary time when Chernobyl melted down in 1986.

Disaster Response

FIELD: Regina, a pair of related questions for you. First of all, how should individuals respond to the risks?

PHELPS: Those people within that 50-mile radius around those plants more than likely will starting taking potassium iodine for that exposure to potential radioactive iodine. Those of us in the United States need to take a very deep breath, be calm. Our chance of exposure to radioactive iodine in the air and breathing it into our lungs, affecting our thyroid, (which is by the way what potassium iodine helps protect, is only your thyroid) -- the chances of that happening are infinitesimal. And of course I was slightly amused, not surprised, but amused to see already that you can not find potassium iodine anywhere in the United States.

FIELD: Well how about for countries in the immediate area around Japan? Are their risks elevated?

PHELPS: Their risk might be somewhat elevated, but again when you look at air and how it moves around the globe, the general rule for most exposures is: Your greatest chance of exposure is in that 50-mile radius. I think of those of us in the United States, if we're trying to find a way that we can incorporate this knowledge or learning into our own life, I would suggest that any of your listeners who happen to live near a nuclear power plant -- and I would say that is a 50-mile radius -- they should think about their own personal family preparedness and what they would do if something happened in an emergency here in the United States.

FIELD: Well, let's talk about how organizations should respond, and I'm thinking of financial institutions, government agencies, healthcare organizations that are in the vicinity of the plants that are affected.

PHELPS: I think the first, we're over our first response phase of this emergency as far as businesses in Japan, meaning that most organizations now and certainly Tokyo ... have gotten their arms around being able to deal with response issues, which is finding employees dealing with those immediate urgent issues. For those that are in the not heavily impacted areas, meaning that they are not in the areas that were devastated by the tsunami, now what companies need to be thinking about is really 'What can I do to continue my business based on the supply chain disruptions issues in Japan?' Of course already we're seeing widespread food shortages, electric shortages; they are already doing rolling blackouts in nine prefectures in Japan. So the question that any business needs to think about is, 'Do I need to offshore or move out of Japan some mission critical activities so they can continue?' So I would ask any of your listeners to really look at that.

Now also they should be very careful to consider regulations. In banking in particular in Japan, you can not just pull off many of those processes that might be down there. They need to work very closely with Japanese regulators to ensure that they can indeed move offshore activities that are currently being done in Japan and not violate any regulatory issues.

Lessons Learned

FIELD: For those of us outside of Japan, what are the lessons that we've learned so far from how we've seen this crisis unfold and how it has been handled?

PHELPS: You know one of the things that I think that is really important to reflect on immediately is really how incredibly well-prepared Japan is. Now you may watch the television and think 'Oh my gosh, look at all of those horrible things that are going on.' But if you stop and reflect about an earthquake that has been rated 8.9, or as they rated it in Japan 9.0, one of the largest earthquakes ever in the world, literally 80 miles offshore of a major city. If that would have happened in the United States, if that happened in California, for example, our response, our ability to recover would be no where near what Japan has been able to demonstrate. Japanese citizens are incredibly well-prepared. They go through drills on a monthly basis. In most communities, people have all the supplies that they need at home. So I think the first thing that we can really take from this is, I hope that all of us really look at this and say, what am I doing in my community, in my family, in my business, to be better prepared? That is a critical thing. So first of all, I think you should hone preparedness and the fact that again, even though Japan is so well-prepared, my goodness they are still struggling, and that is to be expected given the magnitude of the event.

I think the second thing right behind that is that to realize that even with a country like Japan is so well-prepared that so we have a lot of responsibility. So I would really encourage your listeners to take an opportunity to really look at their business continuity plans, their disaster recovery plans, and say if something even on -- if 25% of what happened to Japan happened to us, could we recover? And I think there are four or five big areas that your listeners should really focus on. Really the idea of people, so really focusing on emergency procedures for your offices, looking at training that is appropriate for your staff and also drills, so whether it is an earthquake drill or a fire drill or a tornado drill would all be really important to emphasize now because people are riveted on this. It is a great opportunity to really exploit, in a good way, people's anxiety about this and have them become a little bit more concerned.

I think they also need to really look at their mission critical processes, and what needs to be done in that short term period -- the first 24, 48, 72 hours, and then looking forward into weeks, and then in the first 30 days really looking at their technology and making sure that they have the adequate backup and recovery solutions to meet those mission-critical processes, and also to look from a perspective of their facility and making sure that if there is a thing that they could do now today that could mitigate something. For example, if you are in an earthquake area, could you make sure that every one of your servers is very secured, so they would not topple over and be damaged in any kind of shaking? That is called mitigation, and that is certainly something you can do in every facility. Walk the area and see what you can do to mitigate something.

Then lastly, look at communication-related issues in the area of making sure that you have a current telephone contact information, personal emails, mobile phone numbers for your employees, and also your vendors, so that when something happens you are able to actually reach out to them and communicate in a timely manner.

Next Steps

FIELD: Final question for you, Regina. What do you expect we'll see next in this crisis, and for organizations and individuals that do want to lend help, what can they do?

PHELPS: That's a great question. This is just started, and I know it feels like it's been going on forever already, but we have just begun this story. I think what we're going to see in business around the world is more supply chain disruptions. So I think every organization around the world that uses anything is going to have to really seriously look at what the supply chain issues might be. It's not just some conductors and those people that are involved in the manufacturing of computers; it really is every type of aspect. So looking at supply chain disruptions and seeing how that might impact us. I think the other thing that is going to happen, of course, is that Japan is the third largest economy in the world. And they also have one of the largest debts -- over almost $7.5 trillion dollars -- so there is very likely to be some economic impacts as this begins to unfold over time. We need to really consider that in our planning going forward.

As far as what people can do, there are many, many great resources that they should look at, and I think looking at either the Red Cross, Oxfam, different support groups in Japan that are doing great work, and really looking at the Japan sources as to where the need might be the greatest and how we might be able to support them. I would really encourage all of us to remember that this disaster will take Japan years to get over, and it will quickly fade from the news, and to remember that our colleagues over there deserve our support and will need it for some period of time.

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