Editor's note: Laurie Garrett is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her forthcoming book is "I Heard the Sirens Scream: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks," Amazon, Spring 2011.
In the decorous chambers of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Wednesday a U.S. bureaucrat launched a tsunami of panic that has spread further worldwide than the real tsunami that devastated much of Japan on March 11.
In testimony to Congress, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said, "There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures."
Moreover, Jaczko insisted, the Japanese government's response to its ongoing radiation problems at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant has understated the health risks posed by the damage there. The evacuation zone for safe distancing from the plant should be at a 50-mile periphery, he said -- three times the boundary set by the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Fear followed. From Beijing to Miami, supplies of potassium iodide were snatched off drug store shelves by people convinced that clouds of lethal, cancer-inducing radiation would soon engulf their families. (The iodine pills are appropriately taken by people directly exposed to radiation to protect their thyroid glands from absorbing radioactive forms of the element.)
U.S. manufacturers of the pills quickly sold out, and are now unable to supply the genuinely needy Japanese population. In Beijing, rumors exaggerating Jaczko's comments triggered stampedes at iodide sales points, causing injuries. Authorities in the U.S., Canada and across Europe have been at pains to make people understand -- believe -- that their health is not in danger, and would not be even were a worst case multi-reactor explosion to occur at far off Fukushima.