Philadelphia Inquirer: On Dec. 20, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made states an offer that really is too good to refuse.
The NRC invited states with nuclear power plants within their borders or nearby to apply for free supplies of potassium iodide, the anti-radiation drug that prevents thyroid cancer in adults and children exposed to radiation.
In doing so, the NRC was encouraging states to stockpile the drug -- the same simple stuff used in smaller amounts to iodize table salt -- so that it would be readily available to residents living within 10 miles of nuclear plants.
The NRC offer isn't directly related to Sept. 11. But assuming that terrorists would just as soon attack a nuclear power plant as anything else, you can see how keeping a supply of potassium iodide handy isn't such a bad idea.
And it isn't such a bad public health policy, either.
Taken within hours of exposure, potassium iodide saturates the thyroid and blocks it from absorbing cancer-causing radioactive iodine.
Chernobyl: After the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine for instance, there was a spike of thyroid cancer cases among exposed children. But the cases didn't appear to extend to neighboring countries, such as Poland, which gave protective doses of potassium iodide to its citizens.
Back at home, during the near meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island, the feds rushed supplies of potassium iodide to Harrisburg, Pa., just in case. Thankfully, the drug wasn't needed -- but it would have been vital in protecting the public had radiation spread.
Any potassium iodide downsides?
Even with rare reports of nonfatal allergic reactions, this is a safe drug that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The biggest issue might be public misunderstanding: Instead of evacuating a radiation site, some people might think they could just take a pill and be OK. They'd be wrong -- potassium iodide protects against only one type of deadly radiation.
Still, that protection is important. As a Pennsylvania radiological emergency committee recommended in January 2001, stockpiling should be considered and the state should develop plans for distributing the drug.
So what's the problem? The NRC is offering the drug for free, and it's available to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for the asking.
In fact, committees in all three states are considering the offer. But there's a danger politics might block the deal. The nuclear power industry has long opposed stockpiling of potassium iodide because it contributes to a perception that nuclear power plants might be unsafe.
Acting on the basis of a perception could be lethal. States must do the right thing -- for citizens -- and accept potassium iodide from the NRC.