Mary Selecky and Washington State’s Response to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

Case Solution

Pamela Yatsko, Howard Koh
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health ()

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 triggered a 30-foot-high tsunami along Japan’s Pacific coast that damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. The crippled reactors leaked radiation into the ocean and atmosphere, polluted the local environment, and sent a radioactive cloud over the Pacific Ocean toward North America, which was about 5,000 miles away. Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire soon asked Health Secretary Mary Selecky about the Department of Health’s action plan for the crisis and ordered the veteran health official to “take care of it.” Although radiation exposure posed minor health risks to West Coast communities, public opinion was highly concerned about the potential health effects. Non-stop coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its aftermath inadvertently fueled what Selecky described as “an epidemic of fear” as residents tried to protect themselves from possible radiation exposure in water, seafood and dairy products. Almost three weeks after the crisis began, Selecky received an unexpected call from Governor Gregoire, who had just been contacted by New York Times reporters to comment on the radiation found in a milk sample from Washington state. “What sample of milk?” Selecky replied when he heard the news for the first time. What should Selecky do? How should you and your staff react to the March 11 disaster? What should you do after radiation is detected in a milk sample from Washington State? How should she and her department deal with public concerns about contaminated debris hitting Washington’s shores and other disaster-related issues in the months and years to come?

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