Friday, April 22, 2011

Integrating social media into your warning system

I'm really happy to say that Emergency Management Ontario has climbed on the social media bandwagon. This long-overdue development comes thanks to some very good work and policy development from a great bunch of people.

(DISCLOSURE: I work for the same provincial ministry that is responsible for EMO and I collaborate closely with them.)

The EMO twitter feed!/OntarioWarnings also comes in French and will be used to provide emergency preparedness tips in routine situations and will be used as an emergency information tool during disasters/crises. This first step in the integration of social media into emergency management is often the hardest to take. Congrats to EMO!

The Twitter account is only one way that EMO will use to warn Ontarians about impending emergencies. They have a well thought out process to let as many people know as possible.

I'm certainly pleased with this development. I can now point at tangible achievements from our emergency management organization. Beyond the use of Twitter, other small steps are occurring and paving the way for a bright future toward a systemic integration of social media into our programs.

Earlier this winter, we worked with CrisisCommons/CrisisCamp Toronto to put up a pilot crowd map. This was done in preparation for a giant snowstorm that never really materialized. However, EMO linked to this volunteer-created map as a proof of concept.

As the digital volunteer/technical volunteer community develops and refined its standards, training and partnerships with official agencies, this sort of collaboration is going to become commonplace.

There is fantastic work being done currently on the Manitoba and Saskatchewan floods. That work could certainly be of great value to the emergency management organizations of both provinces. There have been preliminary contacts between the volunteers that created and are updating the maps and officials. That's very good. The next frontier will be in achieving some kind of more formal partnership. This needs to be done without dampening the enthusiasm and dedication that drives the digital volunteer communities.

But, progress is being made, in Ontario and elsewhere and I must say it's a great era to be involved in emergency management. Again congrats to all my colleagues at EMO.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Latest post on PTSC-Online: Flipping the switch and going into crisis communications mode

A back to the basics post but very relevant.

Here's the link:

A turning point in the integration of SM

The Japanese disaster perhaps marks a general acceptance of social media as emergency management tools that go beyond emergency information.

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Japan crisis showcases social media's muscle

Nine days after Japan's catastrophic earthquake, two urgent pleas for help appeared on the Twitter stream of U.S. Ambassador John Roos:

"Kameda hospital in Chiba needs to transfer 80 patients from Kyoritsu hospital in Iwaki city, just outside of 30km(sic) range."

"Some of them are seriously ill and they need air transport. If US military can help, pls contact (name withheld) at Kameda."

The back-to-back tweets lit up Roos' mobile phone at 4 p.m. local time. Each was tagged with @AmbassadorRoos, his Twitter address, instantly sending a digital SOS to the top U.S. diplomat in Japan. A year ago, before Roos opened his Twitter account, getting his attention in such a direct, immediate way would not have been possible.


Monday, April 11, 2011

The Japanese disaster and crisis communications

A month after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, 30 days marked by the worst nuclear disaster since Tchernobyl, there's been lots of comments recently on how different Japanese officials handled crisis communications.

I'll review some of those comments here and then add, modestly, a few of my own.

Bill Salvin had this post in late March, a mere two weeks after the disaster struck. One of his key observations centers on the mistrust of TEPCO, the large utility company that owns the stricken nuclear generating station in Fukushima. Lack of clarity, obfuscation, misleading comments are clearly not words normally associated with good crisis communications practices. Yet they sum up this post and many reports from journalists from around the world. Here's an excerpt: 

"The company that owns the nuclear power plants, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has been accused of withholding information and downplaying the severity of crisis. It got so bad, a senior government official asked a TEPCO leader, "What in the world is going on?"

A story published in the Japan Times Online this weekend takes another approach. It looks at the different perception of the communications response between internal Japanese and international audiences. The article cites a poll done by the American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo and it's pretty revealing of how foreigners viewed the response:

"When asked, "What was the biggest challenge you confronted during the crisis?" time and time again, the same messages came back: "misinformed and sensationalized rumors"; "lack of consistent and accurate information about nuclear risk and rolling blackouts"; and "obtaining accurate, complete and timely information to make prudent business decisions" were typical of the responses.
This illustrates that the government's crisis communication response was inadequate, especially from the perspective of the international community."

Another good analysis comes from reputed crisis communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman, author of the Risk = Hazard + Outrage technique. Sandman pays a lot of attention to what wasn't said by Japanese authorities and how that contributed to creating confusion and resentment. His approach focuses on communicating risks that cause alarm and addressing the topics head on. That's something that didn't happen as he writes here:

"But they failed to predict that there would probably be increasing radiation levels in local milk, vegetables, and seawater; that Tokyo’s drinking water would probably see a radiation spike as well; that plutonium would probably be found in the soil near the damaged plants; that the evidence of core melt would probably keep getting stronger; that all that water they were using to cool the plants would probably become radioactive, probably make repair work more difficult and more dangerous, and probably begin to leak; etc. After each of these events occurred, the government told us they were predictable and not all that alarming. But it failed to predict them.
My guess is that officials did in fact predict most of these events – privately. But they failed to predict them publicly."

That failure, according to Sandman, made things much worse in terms of public perception and heightened fears.

Another look at the handling of the Japanese nuclear crisis takes aim at how information was delivered and proves very positive for the main spokesperson for the Japanese government.
The post from Jonathan Bernstein's blog (citing a Japanese colleague) goes over the key aspects of delivering crisis communications.

So, what are my own thoughts? Well, I somewhat agree (I don't speak Japanese so I can't judge, but the key points mentioned in Jonathan Bernstein's post certainly ring true) that the delivery was adequate. But what was sorely lacking was coordination, unity of messaging and a clear sense of strategy. 

First, from the onset, there was always an impression (in my mind certainly), that TEPCO and the Japanese authorities were not singing from the same song sheet. There always seemed to be some daylight between their respective positions and statements. The inaccuracies of certain radiation readings didn't help either.

Second. we never really knew until a few weeks in, who was speaking on behalf of a unified response. Were the TEPCO people in charge? Or was the government's Cabinet Secretary? Or the Japanese Prime Minister? There must be some coordination and unity of messaging established right from the start of any major incident from all the key stakeholders. With social media, rumours and contradictory information spread very quickly and it takes a lot of effort to correct that misinformation later on.

Finally, we never got the sense that there was a clearly defined strategy associated with the response. The nuclear incident overshadowed everything and other elements of the response (particularly dealing with the survivors of the earthquake/tsunami) were left exposed and subject to criticism from the media. The confusion regarding crisis communications and risk communications practices in relation to Fukushima helped to muddle the water for the overall response and how it was perceived by audiences, internal and external.

To summarize: a key lesson learned should be the need for immediate coordination of emergency information by all major stakeholders. There must be a sentiment that there is a singular purpose shared by all key parties involved: to inform audiences honestly, promptly, openly and efficiently, using social media and other tools.

That sentiment never materialized in the first weeks of this ongoing disaster.
What do you think?

Manitoba braces for floods

Lots of water coming from the Dakotas.

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Manitoba prepares for flood as Red River crests in N.D.

Concerns about flooding are rising in southern Manitoba. Water levels in the area receded slightly on Sunday, but the Red River has now crested in Fargo, North Dakota, putting people in Winnipeg on alert.

Randy Hull, the city's emergency preparedness co-ordinator, says 2,000 volunteers gathered over the weekend to help sandbag 100 properties in the area that aren't protected by the ring dikes encircling the city.

"As of last night, we were able to finish the first phase of our sandbagging for those at-risk properties that are part of the first part of our response to this event. So we have about 400,000 sandbags that have been put in place," he told Canada AM Monday from Winnipeg.

As the floodwater starts to move up from North Dakota, his crew will move into the next phase which aims to protect another 460 properties, Hull said.

The city is hoping for 900 volunteers a day over the next few days to help sandbag those flood-prone neighbourhoods.


A good read on climate change and EM

Some solid research work.

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Under Pressure: Reducing disaster risk and enhancing US emergency response capacity in an era of climate change

With disasters—and particularly climate-related disasters—on the rise, the global humanitarian response system is under increased pressure to assist growing numbers of people. The US government is the leading global player in this system. The US approach seeks to encompass a broad range of activities and allow humanitarian agencies flexibility in their missions and response. However, as a result, the myriad interconnected US agencies involved—civilian and sometimes military—are without clear leadership and mission, beholden to various legislative constraints, and focused more on disaster response than on proactive disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Disaster data through 2007 indicate increases in the frequency of climate-related disasters, the damage caused, and the number of people affected. On average, during 1998–2007, disasters affected 250 million people a year, with 98 percent affected by climate-related disasters. In 2007, the global humanitarian community spent $700 million (10 percent of all humanitarian assistance) in response to "natural hazard disasters." Oxfam research projects that, with business as usual, climate-related disasters will affect 375 million people a year by 2015. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most vulnerable regions are Africa and South Asia, where hunger and poverty are already heavily concentrated.

As climate disasters increase in frequency and intensity, the impacts of climate change on food and water security, human health, vulnerability, migration patterns, and conflict potential will likely create increased humanitarian need. If developing-country governments and communities, who are the first responders to these impacts, fail to become more resilient, they may call more frequently upon international disaster responders. Additionally, if a state tips from vulnerability into instability, the presence of a security situation will have implications for the US government. Humanitarian organizations could face a staggering challenge in the coming years, with 634 million people—nearly onetenth of the world's current population—living in at-risk coastal areas and 2 billion living in arid regions expected to become severely water-stressed.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

The full scope of a terrible tragedy

Going beyond nuclear ...

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Japan: no end in sight to the unthinkable

A woman at a north Japanese shelter supported by ACT Alliance laments that the unthinkable has happened to her people - and continues to plague them.

"You know, this disaster we thought was something that happens in far away countries, and we never expected that it will happen to us. Aftershocks come every three minutes, and it is still unbelievable what has happened here."

Then, she offers visitors to the shelter a piece of steamed sweet potato, her spirit of generosity stronger than her own wish to eat.

The scale of the twin earthquake and tsunami, with by the threat of nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has now been compouned by severely cold weather. Although Japan is equipped with superior disaster response mechanisms, even it is struggling to deal with the disaster. Police report that 27,000 are dead or missing since March 11. About 300,000 people are living in over 2300 official evacuation sites across Japan, with possibly thousands more in unregistered centres, putting the number of people living at evacuation sites at possibly well over 500,000.


Friday, April 8, 2011

the stories goes on ...

removed from the front page but still newsworthy.

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Water radiation levels rise north of nuke plant

The operator of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant says seawater radiation levels continue to rise in areas north of the plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Company says it detected on Thursday 110 becquerels of radioactive iodine-131 per cubic centimeter in seawater samples collected 30 meters from outlets in the northern part of the complex.

The figure is 2,800 times higher than the maximum allowed under government standards. Measurements at the same spot were 600 times the standard on Tuesday and 1,000 times on Wedneday.

In a series of surveys 15 kilometers from the coastline, a reading 9.3 times the national limit was detected north of the plant, off the coast of Minami-soma City.

The government's nuclear safety agency has instructed the Fukushima plant operator to review its monitoring activities, as the radioactive material is likely to be carried northward by ocean currents.

The agency stressed the need to monitor areas of high radiation concentration more closely to clarify possible contamination of the ocean.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Going with the flow: SM for flood info

Use social media to communicate promptly and efficiently during a crisis or disaster. Adds built-in resilience to your emergency info program.

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City Of Winnipeg to Use Social Media for Flood and Emergency Preparedness Communication

The City of Winnipeg activated new Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts on Monday, April 4, 2011, as part of our overall flood and emergency preparedness communication strategies.  

The three emergency specific social media accounts will support the City’s existing EmergWeb site and provide residents with additional sources of up-to-date information on emergencies within the City.  

“By adding social media tools to our emergency communication strategy, Winnipeg residents will have multiple ways to stay informed,” said Randy Hull, Coordinator of the City’s Emergency Preparedness Program.


Social Media as a CT tool

Well, certainly in the emergency info sense

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US to use Facebook, Twitter to issue terror alerts

WASHINGTON – The U.S. government's new system to replace the five color-coded terror alerts will have two levels of warnings — elevated and imminent — that will be relayed to the public only under certain circumstances for limited periods of time, sometimes using Facebook and Twitter, according to a draft Homeland Security Department plan obtained by The Associated Press.

Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public entirely if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government's confidential plan.

Like a gallon of milk, the new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date.

The 19-page document, marked "for official use only" and dated April 1, describes the step-by-step process that would occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. It describes the sequence of notifying members of Congress, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities and then governors and mayors and, ultimately, the public. It specifies even details about how many minutes U.S. officials can wait before organizing urgent conference calls among themselves to discuss pending threats. It places the Homeland Security secretary, currently Janet Napolitano, in charge of the so-called National Terrorism Advisory System.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

A good piece on Fukushima

The aftermath of a terrible tragedy lingers.

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Fukushima: the future is unknown, but the present is terrible enough

Of all the grim headlines to have emerged from Japan in recent weeks, this one on the Kyodo newswire was particularly disturbing: "Up to 1,000 bodies left untouched near troubled nuke plant". It followed reports that police abandoned the corpse of a tsunami fatality in Fukushima because leaks from the broken reactors made it dangerously radioactive to carry. They bagged the body and left it in a building; a burial or cremation will have to wait until radioactivity diminishes. Their action was a gruesome illustration of how disaster victims are being put to one side while the world is gripped by fear of a meltdown.

The explosions and radiation leaks at the nuclear plant have dominated coverage of Japan's multiple catastrophe, although they have so far resulted in far fewer casualties than the earthquake and tsunami. This is frustrating to anyone who has seen the situation in the evacuation shelters, where the need for food, fuel and care is enormous. It is also disappointing because humanitarian disasters are among those rare occasions when the media are actually useful. Reporters can put a face on disaster, identify needs, and sometimes fill in the information gaps left by overstretched emergency services. They can also help to drum up humanitarian assistance. This time that is also being done by microblogs, including Quakebook, a Twitter sourced charity book that will be published within days.

So why has the media focus remained on less tangible nuclear fears? The old media adage "If it bleeds, it leads", was clearly not the deciding factor. The problems at the plant have not yet resulted in a single fatality, whereas the 28,000 people dead or missing as a result of the earthquake and tsunami make it Japan's deadliest disaster since the war.

The shifts of the earth and ocean on 11 March reset the scales of modern catastrophe. The magnitude nine quake (one of the five most powerful ever recorded) and the 30m to 40m tsunami (the highest ever seen in Japan) caused more economic damage than any disaster man has known. They pulverised several hundred kilometres of coastline and left up to 400,000 people homeless. Fewer than a third are nuclear evacuees.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Critical infrastructure: key to recovery

A look at the Japanese disaster

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From March 11 to March 22 or 23 support for survivors was minimal.  Supply was substantially less than demand — or needs — for water, food, pharmaceuticals, essential medical care and basic shelter.  Since the 23rd or so fundamental human needs are being met in most areas.

The supply crunch has been mostly a matter of distribution capacity not supply capacity.  Distribution was incapacitated by breaks in the transportation network, the communications network, and — especially — availability of fuel.  (I continue to seek more information on the role of perimeter power in curtailing distribution capacity.)  Hoarding hurt, but did not break supply capacity.

The transportation network was the first to bounce back.  Given the power of the earthquake, this confirms the value of long-term investment in structural mitigation and resilience.

Restoration of the communications network has been uneven and dramatically demonstrates the tight interdependence of the power and communications systems.  In the immediate aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami cell phone communications was surprisingly robust.  But as both towers and cell phones lost power and could not be recharged much of the system went dark.  As electricity has been restored to the region, the communications network is also coming back, but it will be months before full restoration is achieved.


Cybersecurity and our infrastructure

Largest mass attack on the world's websites detected this weeek

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Millions of sites hit with mass-injection cyberattack

PC World - Hundreds of thousands -- and possibly millions -- of websites have been hit with a cyberattack that some are calling "one of the biggest mass-injection attacks we've ever seen."

The attack was discovered on March 29 by security firm WebSense, and the injected domain was called -- thus, the name of the mass-injection is "LizaMoon." According to WebSense, LizaMoon uses SQL Injection to add malicious script to compromised sites. While the first injected domain was, additional URLs have since been injected in the attack (WebSense has a full list here).

The method of using an injected script redirects users to a rogue AV site, which tries to get people to install a fake anti-virus program called Windows Stability Center.

When WebSecurity discovered the attack on March 29, 28,000 URLs had been compromised. The number quickly grew to 226,000, including many iTunes URLs (though the malicious code is neutralized by Apple).


Friday, April 1, 2011

A staged approach to integrating social media into emergency management programs

Had a great discussion today on #smemchat on the future of the SMEM movement and the continuous need to promote the integration of social media (SM) into emergency management (EM). These weekly chats on Twitter are a fantastic opportunity to get a good feel on the latest trends from practitioners across North America. Check them out every Friday at 12:30 DST.

One of the topics today was how to convince senior EM people of the need to have a social media component in their programs and plans.

To me the key is a staged approach which goes a long way in overcoming cultural, technical and personal obstacles. So here it goes (and I'm sure someone will come up with an infographic on this!).
So, on this continuum, we go from no SM involvement to an integrated approach across the whole EM program, but particularly in the response phase.

  • NO SM: we still hear some EM types go: ..." I don't have time or the resources, or the money, to get into social media ..." or "... I don't know enough about it" ... or even ..."it's a fad and will go a way, we need official tools to communicate ..."  What's our job: to educate, prod, convince and lead by example. Expand our knowledge of best practices and show good ROI.
  • Limited use of SM: ... the first step is ... acceptance ... social media platforms are now key parts of our communities' fabric. We have to move at the speed of our audience and that means, in some cases, using social media as an old-fashioned one-way communications tool, Think of Twitter (for example), as a key component of your alerting/notification process. How difficult is that to sell to senior execs? Key argument: all traditional media outlets monitor social media so using it will get many audiences informed quickly.
  • Interactive use of SM: now we move a bit further down on the engagement spectrum. We are into the realm of using more than one SM platform, integrating it into a good web-based information strategy. More importantly, we have convinced our bosses that we need to monitor SM because we can find very quickly what's being said about us. We know who some of the key "influencers" are, those who help shape public perception of our response.
  • Conversational use of SM: the first real true stage of social media engagement, the Listen, Learn, Engage formula. Now that we know who our key stakeholders who may be helpful to us are, we actually go out and engage with them on social media platforms. We know who to interact with to counter false information and dispel rumours. A key selling point: engaging in SM will help us create a favourable public perception of our response.
  • Operational use of SM: this is not only for the PIO or the JIC anymore, although SM play a key role in the provision of prompt, effective and accurate emergency information. Now, we're taking advantage of the "age of social convergence" where mobile devices/tech + SM = empowered citizens and volunteers ... This means we become aware of, and use to some degree, data provided by digital volunteers and crisis mappers. We use social media as a volunteer mobilization tool or we work with agencies/partners who do just that. Key selling point: adding data provided by volunteers/sensors out there in the areas affected by the disaster or from other places, improves our understanding of what's going on.
  • Integrated use of SM: The last step in this continuum ... where outside data has been validated, where we have worked with volunteer organizations and help train their people so we have confidence in the info they provide. We integrate those data streams and analyses in the EOC. More than that, it's use is expanded in all aspects of EM, from preparedness and mitigation to recovery. In the response phase, that data provided thru mobile technologies, GIS-enabled software and SM platform is now an integral factor in the production of our common operating picture/Situational awareness. SM is now a fully integrated part of our electronic emergency management systems and a proven volunteer coordination tool. At that point, you don't need to convince anyone anymore ... the proof as they say, is in the SM pudding ...
That's where the new frontier of the integration of social media into emergency management lies, in the  continuum described above. The crisis mapping community in particular is really putting in question the notions of info control, data validation in EOCs. It's no longer the private realm of emergency managers ... 

A key factor along the way, will be for emergency management organization to join with their outside partners and embrace this new phenomenon and help train those volunteers. In an era where public funds become scarce, expanding the EM community to volunteers who show commitment, dedication and expertise, will be a blessing for many of us. 

Add the inherent resilience of the cloud-based collective that are SM platforms and related technologies, and we now have very powerful allies out there.

That's my manifesto !  

Tech 4 the good

Technology applied + good corporate citizenship ... the Google experience

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Google Map Maker boosts disaster relief efforts

SINGAPORE--Initially built to allow online users to fill in parts of the world with near-zero mapping details, Google Map Maker has found a humanitarian purpose where updates to maps of disaster-hit areas across the globe are aiding emergency relief efforts.

Launched in June 2008 and described as Google's "citizen cartography" Web tool, Map Maker was developed as the solution to mapping parts of the world where there are no available commercial maps. The tool relies on user contributions from local communities to mark out geospatial features, explained Andrew McGlinchey, head of product management, Google Southeast Asia.

India was the first country the Web tool was originally intended for, he added, in an interview at the sidelines of the Google Geo Community Summit here Thursday. Map Maker is currently available in over 100 countries, mostly developing nations where quality maps are difficult to source.

According to McGlinchey, who is based here, user contributions to the map-building service within the Asia-Pacific region have been highest in the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Vietnam.

He noted that Google "didn't have a humanitarian purpose in mind" when it initiated development of Map Maker, but there were instances where the tool proved "extremely helpful" in facilitating disaster response efforts.

A turn for humanitarian

Ed Parsons, Google's geospatial technologist, concurred. In a separate interview with ZDNet Asia, he emphasized that it is critical to know the underlying infrastructure of a country.

Through user-contributed updates, someone would be able to access the base infrastructure of an area before it was affected by a disaster, or find out if there is still a passable road between the airport and relief centers, Parsons explained. Such information can then be accessed by relief organizations to help give them a starting point, he added.

McGlinchey used the example of the Haiti earthquake in January last year. After Google posted satellite-updated images of areas affected by the devastation, people soon updated these maps which humanitarian and non-government groups, such as the United Nations, used to facilitate relief efforts, he said.


Confusion adds to fear in Japan

What measurements are right? In a way it doesn't matter because you can evaluate public fears with a geiger counter.

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Japanese radiation data 'suspiciously high'

Nuclear safety agency wants review of measurements

Japan's nuclear safety agency has ordered a review of the latest radiation measurements taken in air, seawater and groundwater samples around the country's leaking, tsunami-damaged plant.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency says measurements released Wednesday and Thursday seemed suspiciously high. Among them is one that indicated radiation in groundwater was 10,000 times the government's standard.

An overview shows the damage in the interior of reactor Unit 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex in this still image taken from a March 24 handout video released to Reuters on April 1.An overview shows the damage in the interior of reactor Unit 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex in this still image taken from a March 24 handout video released to Reuters on April 1. TEPCO Handout via Reuters TVThe utility that runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant has repeatedly been forced to retract such figures, fuelling fears over health risks and a lack of confidence in the company's ability to respond effectively to the crisis. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. has not been able to stabilize the plant's dangerously overheating reactors since cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.


The meaning of courage and dedication

How do you show up for your shift when you know each minute spent at work hastens your death?

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Japan's Nuclear Rescuers: 'Inevitable Some of Them May Die Within Weeks'

Workers at the disaster-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan say they expect to die from radiation sickness as a result of their efforts to bring the reactors under control, the mother of one of the men tells Fox News.

The so-called Fukushima 50, the team of brave plant workers struggling to prevent a meltdown to four reactors critically damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, are being repeatedly exposed to dangerously high radioactive levels as they attempt to bring vital cooling systems back online.

Speaking tearfully through an interpreter by phone, the mother of a 32-year-old worker said: “My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation.

“He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short term or cancer in the long-term.”

The woman spoke to Fox News on the condition of anonymity because, she said, plant workers had been asked by management not to communicate with the media or share details with family members in order to minimize public panic.