Potassium Iodide Adopted Into U.S. Radiation Protection Rules

By Brian Hansen

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, December 27, 2000 (ENS) - Federal funds could be made available to states and local governments that want to stockpile potassium iodide, under a proposal made last week by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The supplement could be supplied to people exposed to radiation in the case of a catastrophic nuclear power plant accident.


One of many children made sick by radiation released from the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the now former Soviet Union. The distribution of potassium iodide was credited with lowering the death and disease toll in nearby Poland. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace/Spasokukotskiy)

The proposal, which would reverse the NRC's long held position on the subject, would require that potassium iodide (KI) be considered among the federally funded protective measures that could be made available to the general public in the event of severe nuclear power plant accidents.

Potassium iodide, if taken in time, is extremely effective in blocking the human thyroid gland's absorption of radioactive iodine, one of the elements typically released during a nuclear power plant meltdown.

According to the NRC's proposal, the distribution of potassium iodide could be used to "supplement" already established sheltering and evacuation programs, thus further preventing the onset of additional thyroid cancers and other thyroid diseases that might otherwise result from nuclear power plant accidents.


A woman undergoes tests carried out by the IAEA International Chernobyl Assessment Project in Novozybkov, Russia, in 1990. (Photo by Pavlicek, courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency)

Nuclear power plant emergency plans already provide for distribution of the drug to emergency workers and certain institutionalized populations, such as hospital patients within designated emergency planning zones.

Under the NRC's proposal, federal funding would be extended to states - or, in some cases, local governments - that choose to incorporate the stockpiling of potassium iodide for the general public into their nuclear power plant accident emergency plans. The NRC has set aside $400,000 in fiscal year 2001 for this purpose, and the agency will be requesting similar funding in fiscal year 2002.

The NRC said it may consider extending the program to cover the costs of replenishing the stockpiles, but the agency has not yet made any commitments in that regard.

The NRC's proposal comes in response to a petition filed by Peter Crane, a retired NRC staff attorney who acted as a private citizen. The move also comes in the wake of a campaign waged by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy and environmental protection organization founded by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

In October, Public Citizen staff members, saying they wanted to emphasize the lack of protections afforded to Americans from nuclear accidents, delivered packets of potassium iodide to all 535 federal lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In accompanying letters, the group blasted the NRC for muddling and delaying efforts to make potassium iodide available to the general public.

Public Citizen senior analyst James Rico noted that the effectiveness of the drug was recognized in 1977 by the National Council on Radiation Protection, and was authorized for use on the general public by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the following year.

However, potassium iodide was not available in sufficient quantities when the nation's worst nuclear power plant accident occurred at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania in 1979. For more than 20 years after the Three Mile Island meltdown, the NRC failed to take steps to encourage the stockpiling of potassium iodide for use in the next nuclear accident, Rico lamented.

"While the United States has more nuclear reactors than any other country, the protection afforded Americans is second rate," Rico said. "The NRC is treating Americans like second class citizens."


The most serious nuclear accident in the United States occurred in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of the NRC)

In a separate but related matter, the NRC in October finally responded to Public Citizen's 21 year old petition to have the 1979 Three Mile Island accident declared an "extraordinary nuclear occurrence." The group filed the petition on July 24, 1979, claiming it wanted to help the people who were harmed by the meltdown at the plant.

According to the Atomic Energy Act, an extraordinary nuclear occurrence is an event that (1) causes an off-site discharge of certain radioactive material or off-site radiation levels that are deemed to be substantial, and (2) has resulted in, or will probably result in, substantial damages to persons or property off-site.

This October, more than 21 years after the Three Mile Island incident, the NRC notified Public Citizen that the meltdown would not be categorized as an extraordinary nuclear event. Had the agency ruled differently, the reactor's owner could have been barred from using certain legal defenses against citizens who sought to recover damages as a result of the accident.

Public Citizen decried the rejection of the petition as "just another cynical attempt by the nuclear industry apologists at the NRC to deny the consequences of the meltdown at Three Mile Island."

Meanwhile, a host of other nations already have programs in place to stockpile potassium iodide, including Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. The drug was distributed to Polish citizens in the days following the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986, and it is credited for helping to reduce the rash of thyroid cancers that plague children in affected countries that did not distribute the drug.


The remains of Chernobyl's fourth reactor. (Photo courtesy of Chernobyl Charity Online)

The NRC emphasizes that its newly unveiled potassium iodide distribution proposal in no way indicates that U.S. nuclear power plants are any less safe than previously thought. The agency's five members maintains that nuclear power plant safety has been steadily improving, and that potassium iodide can serve as a "reasonable, prudent and inexpensive supplement" to already established evacuation and sheltering plans.

One of the NRC's five commissioners, radiation biologist Greta Joy Dicus, differed with her colleagues in terms of how to go about implementing a national potassium iodide stockpiling and distribution program. Dicus, who was appointed to the federal panel by President Bill Clinton, said she was disappointed that the agency's official proposal does not outline how the use of potassium iodide should interface with other emergency procedures, such as evacuations and food embargoes.


NRC Commissioner Greta Joy Dicus (Photo courtesy of the NRC)

Dicus, who was previously responsible for developing emergency plans for a potential accident at an Arkansas nuclear power plant, said that the use of potassium iodide for the general population was considered - but rejected - due to the availability and effectiveness of other protective measures.

All well crafted emergency plans, Dicus noted, call for the evacuation of the general public from the vicinity of a nuclear power plant accident. This basic precaution, she said, would also protect the public from contaminated foods.

Still, Dicus said that the distribution of potassium iodide was warranted for some people who could not - or would not - be evacuated. These people include emergency workers, nursing home residents, critical care patients and their caregivers, as well as incarcerated individuals and the associated security staff, Dicus said.

Such individuals, Dicus said, should be given potassium iodide ahead of time as an "extra precaution."

Dicus acknowledged that the distribution of potassium iodide a few days after the Chernobyl disaster reduced the number of thyroid cancers among Polish citizens. However, she said that more death and sickness was avoided because of the decision to embargo contaminated foods - a decision that was made almost immediately after the incident.

"Due to the importance of embargoing contaminated food, I am disappointed that the [the proposal] does not give at least a brief explanation of this important and effective emergency protective measure," Dicus wrote in a statement accompanying the proposal. "The experience in Poland suggests that if other protective measures are implemented in a timely fashion, it may not be necessary to supply KI immediately or within a few hours of the event."

Dicus added that the NRC's potassium iodide proposal may result in "a patchwork quilt of protection" for the American public. She noted that unless some federal agency chooses to stockpile the drugs, there will be no federal stockpile for use anywhere in the country, should one be necessary.

"I believe this to be a questionable public heath policy," Dicus wrote. Dicus said that states should fund their own potassium iodide stockpiles, and that federal funds should be used to maintain a federal stockpile that would serve as a "prudent backup measure" for states whose stockpiles are absent or insufficient.

Dicus and her colleagues have directed the NRC's staff to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to find the most efficient and cost effective ways to help interested states and local governments incorporate the stockpiling of potassium iodide into their emergency plans.

The NRC's proposal is available on the agency's website at: www.nrc.gov/NRC/rule.html.