The Meltdown Medicine

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has offered to buy stockpiles of potassium iodide to give to the public in case of an accident at a nuclear power plant. The NRC's decision, reached in July, reverses the agency's decades-long argument that such stockpiles are unnecessary. Potassium iodide, also known by its formula name as "KI," reduces the body's absorption of radioactive contamination.Local officials [in San Luis Obispo, CA], however, have no plans to take advantage of the NRC's offer. They say evacuation and sheltering make more sense than distributing potassium iodide."The downside of KI is that if you stockpile the stuff, you have to distribute it, and you're better off evacuating people than distributing KI," said George Brown of the SLO County Office of Emergency Services. "For the general public, all the minds we listen to say it's not really realistic."Some minds disagree. Dr. Willard Osibin of Templeton was planning a 1998 voter initiative to require stockpiles near the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant."There's no question that it's very important to have potassium iodide on hand," Osibin said, "that is, in fire stations or at locations where the public can get a hold of it within two hours of an accidental release."Nuclear reactors produce a radioactive form of iodine as a by-product of fission. A meltdown or leak from a reactor can introduce radioactive iodine to the atmosphere or water supply.In humans and animals, the thyroid gland absorbs radioactive iodine, mistaking it for normal iodine the body needs. Radioactive iodine can cause thyroid cancer and other diseases. If a pregnant woman is exposed, her fetus will absorb the radioactive iodine, which can damage the baby's developing thyroid, lungs, and brain.Potassium iodide helps prevent that by flooding the thyroid with clean iodine. "Potassium iodide, if taken in time, blocks the thyroid gland's uptake of radioactive iodine," according to the NRC, "and thus could help reduce the thyroid diseases that might otherwise be caused by exposure to airborne radioactive iodine that could be dispersed in a nuclear accident."Potassium iodide is the same chemical found in iodized salt. It does not protect against all forms of radioactive contamination, such as yttrium-90, an isotope that affects the pituitary gland. However, radioactive iodine is a major source of contamination.Mothers for Peace requested a KI stockpile near Diablo 15 years ago. "We had at one time asked them to do that," said Rochelle Becker of Mothers for Peace. "It was many, many years ago, and it was one of the things that we were turned down on ... I wonder what else we asked for that we'll eventually get."Until July, the NRC supported stockpiles only for incarcerated populations and emergency workers -- the people who would be the last to evacuate. SLO County keeps 2,000 vials of KI on hand -- paid for by Pacific Gas & Electric Company -- for those groups.Critics accused the NRC of caving in to utility companies, who worried aloud that KI stockpiles would needlessly alarm the public. Groups have fought for KI stockpiles, including the American Thyroid Association and Ralph Nader's consumer group, Public Citizen."The long standing failure of the NRC to require all commercial reactor licensees to provide KI to surrounding populations is a disgrace," said James Riccio, a staff attorney for Public Citizen. "The NRC has acquiesced to industry pressure much to the detriment of the public health and safety."President Clinton shifted the government's position on KI in 1995 when he created 26 Metropolitan Medical Task Forces to respond to terrorist attacks on American cities. The government began stockpiling KI for those task forces, along with nerve gas antidote, antibiotics, and anthrax vaccine.An NRC staff attorney, Peter Crane, then petitioned his agency to revise its position on KI. Crane had urged the NRC for years to follow the recommendations of the Kemeny Commission, which investigated the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant.The Kemeny Commission criticized the government for failing to supply KI to people near that plant until five days after the release of radioactive contamination. The commission recommended stockpiles of KI near all nuclear plants.Two states, Alabama and Tennessee, created their own stockpiles in defiance of NRC policy. Tennessee residents who live near nuclear plants can pick up free supplies at fire stations.The NRC now says Clinton's counter-terrorist stockpiles make it easier to stockpile near power plants. Some of the historic problems with KI have been improved as well. For example, manufacturers have increased its shelf life, and doctors have decided that allergic reactions are not serious enough to dissuade distribution.State and local governments would have to maintain and distribute the chemical. The county Office of Emergency Services, however, has gotten no direction to do so, Brown said.County OES follows the recommendations of the state Department of Health Services. The state continues to follow the NRC's previous policy.Nonetheless, Osibin believes the NRC's decision should make it easier to create stockpiles in SLO County. The voter initiative he planned may not be necessary. Public awareness may do the job."We'll have to force them," said Osibin, a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "It hasn't been well publicized. More people need to find out about it."SLO County and PG&E have evacuation plans for an accident at Diablo. If circumstances prevent an evacuation -- such as an earthquake that damages roads -- county officials will order people to "shelter in place." However, they doubt that will happen."Given what we know, given our populations and our road carrying capacities and everything else, we don't see that as being a high-probability scenario," Brown said.PG&E keeps KI on hand for workers who would repair an accident and for workers who would monitor contamination that escapes from the plant. PG&E officials, like county officials, see little need for KI stockpiles for the general public. "We tend to agree, based on our experience in emergency planning," said Diablo spokesman Jeff Lewis. However, PG&E is willing to help create stockpiles if state and county officials request them."To date they haven't indicated any desire to change [procedures]," Lewis said. "If they want to change, we'll certainly play our part and do what we can." Pharmacies carry prescription KI for people with iodine deficiencies, but the public can now get non-prescription "radiation emergency potassium iodide" from two companies -- ANBEX Inc. and Carter-Wallace Inc., the company that makes Trojan condoms.

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