The nuclear crisis in Japan has renewed a decade-long fight over how many Americans would receive iodine pills in the aftermath of a nuclear accident here.
Despite pressure from Congress, the Obama administration has declined to overturn a Bush era directive to supply the pills within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear plant rather than 20. The policy emphasized evacuation, avoiding local foods and other measures in addition to iodine.
Japan is bracing for nuclear fallout after last week’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Japanese authorities are distributing 230,000 doses of iodine pills to evacuation centers in the shadow of damaged plants. The iodine is believed to guard against thyroid cancer.
Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., has raised concerns about the 10-mile radius being inadequate and seeks a 20-mile radius. Nearly 3 million people live within 10 miles of the 104 active nuclear reactors in the United States.
“The Japanese nuclear crisis is already worse than the Three Mile Island accident and is clearly the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl,” Markey wrote Monday to Dr. John Holdren, the director of White House science and technology policy. “We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at or a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense preparedness measure.”
Markey previously raised the issue with the Obama administration in December 2009. Last July, the White House notified Markey it would stand by the Bush policy.
“I must tell you that a continued failure to implement this common-sense measure would be irresponsible,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for the Obama administration didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
A bipartisan group of congressmen from Florida wrote a letter last June asking the Obama administration for more of the potassium iodide pills in the event of a nuclear reactor incident or terrorist attack. Given that Florida is surrounded by water, the congressmen raised concerns that policies emphasizing evacuation simply wouldn’t be enough.
Many states set their own policies for emergency response measures, and some states have not accepted iodine pills supplied by the federal government for even the 10-mile radius.
Alan Morris, the president of Anbex Inc., a Virginia-based company that manufactures potassium iodide, said the country is ill-prepared for nuclear fallout in terms of its iodine pill stock.
“The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of the radiation damage will take place far more than 10 miles [out],” Morris said in an interview with the Center. “It’s the low-hanging fruit of radiation protection ... [thyroid cancer] would be the easiest to stop.”
Yet Morris cautioned U.S. residents not to panic about the Japanese disaster — he said he’s filled thousands of individual orders in the last few days from worried Americans.
Some scientists have questioned whether the iodine pills work. George Sgouros, a professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins University, said the government is right to focus on education measures to prevent panic rather than making the pills widely available. He said that generally radioactive material must be ingested — through food or beverages — and the pills only protect against thyroid cancer, not other effects from nuclear fallout.
“It’s not like as you’re walking, you’re being exposed [to thyroid cancer],” Sgouros said.
Elizabeth Pearce, a Boston University professor at the School of Medicine who works with the American Thyroid Association, said American disasters have shown that disaster relief can be chaotic, and iodine pills are one thing the government could be prepared to hand out. To be effective, iodine pills need to be taken quickly after a disaster, she said.
“The timing is so critical,” Pearce said.