Postal Service Decision to Issue Potassium Iodide Highlights Nuclear Risks

Dec. 4, 2002

Postal Service Decision to Issue Potassium Iodide Highlights Nuclear Risks

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

Public Citizen applauds the recent decision of the United States Postal Service to provide all of its employees with potassium iodide (KI) pills as a protective measure in the event of a radiological release, be it a terrorist attack or a disastrous accident. The Postal Service’s action indicates appropriate concern for the vulnerabilities of its 750,000 employees nationwide.

However, KI pills offer only a very limited form of protection because they block only radioactive iodine from being absorbed into the thyroid gland, and block it only for about a day after the tablet is taken. The pills offer no protection from other radioactive isotopes. So, while distributing KI pills as a safeguard in the event of a radiological emergency is a reasonable precaution, more must be done to reduce the threat of a catastrophic accident or attack at U.S. nuclear power plants – a threat that poses risk to millions of people, not just postal employees.

We know that nuclear power plants are vulnerable to attack. The last time the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducted mock terrorist assault tests on the nation’s reactors, operators of nearly half failed to protect vital systems that are needed to prevent a meltdown. Yet, more than a year since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress still has not enacted any legislation to reduce the risk of assault at commercial nuclear facilities – an inexcusable lapse that leaves the public vulnerable. Lawmakers should prioritize nuclear security in the 108th Congress.

Evacuation plans around nuclear power plants also must be reviewed and improved. At some, such as New York’s Indian Point, a safe, rapid evacuation would not be feasible under current plans. The NRC’s woefully lax oversight exacerbates the threat. As recently as this spring, the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio was brought to the brink of disaster not only because of FirstEnergy’s (Davis-Besse’s operating company) admitted emphasis on production over safety, but also as a result of the NRC’s weak approach to regulation and proclivity to cut deals with the nuclear industry.

While prudent in the interim, distributing KI is a Band-Aid approach to a much bigger problem. Ultimately, the best way to guard against nuclear threats is to phase out this inherently dangerous energy source, and move toward clean, safe and affordable alternatives.

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