DECADES of DELAY: The NRC's Failure to Stockpile Potassium Iodide & Protect the Public Health and Safety

Potassium iodide (KI) is effective as a thyroid blocking agent. It reduces thyroid gland accumulation of radioactive iodine that has entered the body through inhalation or ingestion after a nuclear accident.(1)

On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the meltdown of approximately one third of the reactors radioactive fuel rods. Federal and state officials, searching for supplies of KI discovered that there were none to be had.(2)

After the accident, President Carter appointed John Kemeny, President of Dartmouth College, to head a commission to investigate the accident. The Kemeny Commission report was highly critical of the failure to stockpile KI:

For over 25 years, the use of blocking agents such as potassium iodide to prevent the accumulation of radioiodine in the thyroid gland has been known. The effectiveness of potassium iodide administration for thyroid gland protection in the event of releases of radioiodine was recognized by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement in 1977. The Food and Drug Administration authorized use of potassium iodide as a thyroid-blocking agent for the general public in December 1978.

However, at the time of the TMI accident, potassium iodide for this use was not commercially available in the United States in quantities sufficient for the population within a 20-mile radius of TMI.(3)

One of the Kemeny Commission's major recommendations was that "an adequate supply of the radiation protective (thyroid blocking) agent, potassium iodide for human use, should be available regionally for distribution to the general population and workers affected by a radiological emergency."(4)

In May 1982, the Atomic Industrial Forum, a nuclear industry trade association, declared itself against the stockpiling and distribution of potassium iodide.(5)

As late as September 1982, the NRC staff was still strongly in favor of stockpiling potassium iodide. In a memorandum to the Commissioners, the staff proposed that the NRC agree with a draft interagency policy statement supporting KI stockpiling.(6)

However, less than three weeks later the NRC staff reversed its position withdrawing the previous memo and issuing a new memo claiming that NRC's Office of Research could, produce a paper showing that KI was "significantly less cost beneficial than previously assumed."(7)

In April1986, the Chernobyl reactor exploded spewing radiation not only into the immediate vicinity of the reactor near Kiev in Ukraine but also over wide areas of the Soviet Union and nearby Poland. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, where the distribution of KI was inadequate and untimely, are now experiencing extraordinarily high levels of childhood thyroid cancer.(8)

However, in Poland, where KI was administered to 97% of the nation's children, there has been no similar increase in thyroid cancer.(9)

In 1991, the World Health Organization issued a report stating that "implementation of [KI] prophylaxis is critical," and that "stocks of iodine should be stored strategically at points including hospitals, schools, and fire and police stations."(10)

In December 1993, the Nuclear Management and Resources Council sent a "White Paper" to the NRC arguing against any change in KI policy. The paper suggested that, "Public confidence in the technology could be affected by the decision."(11)

In March 1994, the NRC staff again declared its support for KI stockpiling. In its final memorandum to the Commissioners the staff noted that KI could be stockpiled for as little as $.10 per person per year.(12)

In April 1994, Senators Alan Simpson and Joseph Lieberman wrote the NRC, urging that U.S. policy on potassium iodide be brought into line international practice. The Senators noted that, United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Canada and the former Soviet Union--stockpile KI for distribution to and use by the general public in the event of a nuclear emergency.(13)

In September 1995, Peter Crane, an NRC attorney, files a petition for rulemaking calling of the stockpiling of potassium iodide. (14)

In July 1997, NRC Chairman Shirley Jackson agree to purchase a stockpile of KI and to provide it to any state that requested it.(15)

In 1998, the NRC issued "Assessment of the Use of Potassium Iodide as a Public Protective Action During Severe Reactor Accidents". As a result of public criticism of the biased nature of the report, the NRC took the unusual step of withdrawing it.(16)

In April 1999, the NRC reneges on its 1998 promise to fund the purchase of KI.(17)

In July 2000, Representative English introduces legislation requiring the stockpiling of potassium iodide. Unfortunately the Congress has left the bill languishing on Capitol hill.

. 1 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC Information Notice No. 88-15: Availability of U.S. Food And Drug Administration -Approved Potassium Iodide For Use In Emergencies Involving Radioactive Iodine, April 18, 1988.

. 2 "Report of the Office of Chief Counsel on Emergency Response to the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island," (October 1979), p. 91.

. 3 Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, October 1979, at 41-42.

. 4 Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, October 1979, p.75.

. 5 Industry White Paper Review of Federal Policy on Use of Potassium Iodide," December 1993, at 7.

. 6 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Coimmission, "Development of a Federal Policy Statement on the Distribution and Use of Potassium Iodide for Thyroidal Blocking in the Event of a Nuclear Power Plant Accident" SECY- 82-396, September 27, 1982.)

. 7U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, SECY-82-396A , October 15, 1982.

. 8 "Chernobyl's Young Victims Pay Toll: Thyroid, Other Cancers Are Belarus's Legacy of Nuclear Disaster,"

The Washington Post, June 24, 1995, p.1-A.

. 9 "Iodide Prophylaxis in Poland after the Chernobyl Reactor Accident: Benefits and Risks," Janusz Nauman, M.D., Ph.D.,

Jan Wolff, M.D., Ph.D., The American Journal of Medicine, Vol. 94, p. 524 (May, 1993).

. 10 World Health Organization, EUR/ICP/CEH 102(S), Section 4.3.3. (1991).

. 11 Nuclear Management and Resources Council , "Review of Federal Policy on Use of Potassium Iodide," (December 1993), p. 8.

. 12 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Coimmission, "Addendum to SECY-93-318 Re-evaluation of Policy Regarding Use of Potassium Iodide After a Severe Accident at a Nuclear Power Plant," SECY-94-087, p. 2.

. 13 U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Regulation, Letter to Ivan Selin, Chairman U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 20, 1994.

. 14 Petition of Peter G. Crane for rulemaking to implement the recommendation of the President's Commission on the

Accident at Three Mile Island (Kemeny Commission) that the United States stockpile the drug potassium iodide

for thyroid protection during nuclear accidents. (The Petition is available on NRC's web site.)

. 15 "Atom Agency Tries to Avoid Financing Fall Out Drug," New York Times, April 24, 1999, p. a-10.

. 16 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Assessment of the Use of Potassium Iodide as a Public Protective Action During Severe Reactor Accidents" (NUREG - 1633) (Notice of withdrawl of this NUREG is available on NRC's web site.)

. 17 "Atom Agency Tries to Avoid Financing Fall Out Drug," New York Times, April 24, 1999, p. A-10.