Black swans are another name for Secretary Rumsfeld’s famous category of “known” unknowns, things we know we don’t know – but maybe we should. The Japanese anticipated the double-shot of earthquakes and tsunamis, but not the triple whammy of earthquake-Tsunami-massive release of low-dose radiation from nuclear power plants.

As one might expect, for those who think about disaster response, the unprecedented events offered a bonanza of subjects to study. The Heritage Foundation recently pulled together a team of experts to offer some early observations on what lessons the experience of the Great Eastern Japanese Earthquake holds for the United States. They looked at four areas: (1) Preparedness and response, (2) Communicating the risk, (3) International assistance, (4) Critical infrastructure.

Among the more challenging problems presented by the disaster is developing effective risk communications for low-dose radiation exposure. Clearly, waiting until the day of disaster is not the best time to start thinking about how to discuss this complicated issue with the public. The Japanese government is world-class at risk communications – except on this issue. The government’s credibility score crashed early on, helped little by media that trotted out a long-parade of “experts” more interested in promoting their own nuclear agenda than explaining facts to the public. The U.S. government actually made it worse by issuing its own string of contradictory recommendations. It is hard to believe that Washington would not screw up a nuclear incident just as badly as Toyko, particularly if the event happened in the midst of another catastrophe.