Residents near nuclear plants may get cancer prevention pills

Rea Blakey and Elizabeth Cohen
December 19, 2001

(CNN) — More than two decades after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the United States is again confronting the fear of an unexpected release of radiation. This time the concern isn’t about an accident, but about a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant.

The specter of such a strike has prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a step many advocates have been demanding for years: supplying potassium iodide pills to people at risk of radiation exposure.

Potassium iodide, known as KI, is a cheap, nonprescription drug that is proven to prevent thyroid cancer — one of the main causes of death after radiation exposure — if administered within three to four hours of a nuclear release. But unlike many other countries, the United States has not stockpiled the drug as a precautionary measure.

“Why shouldn’t America, and American children, have the same level of protection that kids do in France and Germany and Poland and Russia and Armenia and Ireland and Norway and a host of other countries?” asks Peter Crane, a former attorney with the NRC. Crane has been battling his former employer over the issue since the Three Mile Island accident.

Now, the NRC says it will offer KI pills to all 50 states. It will be up to each state to decide whether to take the pills and how to get the drug to its citizens, an NRC spokesman said.

The agency has set aside $800,000 for the effort and is negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to get the best price on the pills. Some Internet Web sites sell KI pills for as little as 21 cents for two 85 milligram tablets, or 11 cents per 65 milligram tablet.

Some states aren’t waiting for federal help. Tennessee has already distributed KI to residents, and Alabama and Arizona are stockpiling the drug. New Hampshire is considering requiring pharmacies to carry KI so individual citizens can buy their own.

Mark Jacobs, who lives near New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant, carries a supply of potassium iodide for himself, his wife and his son wherever he goes.

“Every time I hear a plane going overhead I have to ask myself, ‘Is that a plane that’s going to continue or is it going to crash into Indian Point?’ and that scares me,” he said.

But not everyone is convinced KI is the answer.

NRC chairman Richard Meserve says giving people KI could create a false sense of security.

“The more effective action would be to evacuate people, because KI does not provide complete protection,” he said.

Another problem could be getting the drug to residents in time.

In the immediate aftermath of Three Mile Island, officials prepared 237,000 doses of potassium iodide, but the drug didn’t make it to the scene for six days — too late to do any good.

Ken Kelly, another Indian Point neighbor, says the solution is to move nuclear plants away from populated areas.

But until such a step happens — if it ever happens — people like Mark Jacobs say they’ll keep their potassium iodide pills handy.

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