As the power industry attempts to restart the country’s nuclear reactors, the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new proposal to require local governments to stock enough iodine tablets and make them available to people of all ages is potentially misleading.
The NRA suggested that having enough of the iodine, technically, potassium iodide (KI), pills on hand would be an important measure should another nuclear disaster occur.
The NRA’s suggestion makes it appear that having iodine tablets on hand will somehow constitute thorough disaster preparation. Unfortunately, potassium iodide is not an “anti-radiation” pill, as people might hope. Instead, taking the KI pills is only a supplementary measure.
Evacuation is the primary protective measure that people should take in case of another nuclear disaster. Local governments within a 30-km radius of nuclear power plants should stock iodine tablets, but also let people know what the tablets can and cannot do.
The tablets block uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid glands, but only if taken before or within a few hours after exposure to radioactive iodine. The pills do not prevent radioactive iodine from entering the body, nor do they protect other parts of the body.
The NRA’s recommendation may lead some people to believe that they are safe from radiation if they just pop a little pill. That is far from the case, and the government should make sure that citizens understand this.
The iodine is helpful for infants and children, who are at greatest risk from exposure, and people of all ages derive some benefit. However, the pills cannot protect the body from other radioactive elements and do nothing if radioactive iodine is not present. The pill’s effectiveness, like all preventive measures, depends on many factors: exposure time, absorption rates, a person’s general health and the total amount of radioactive iodine present.
Providing the pills is not a bad thing; however, the NRA’s directive to local governments to stock the pills may appear to be a more thorough protective measure than it really is. To use them effectively requires specific guidelines for different age groups and under different conditions.
Knowing that the pills are on hand will be little comfort for people living near the nuclear plants that are restarted. The NRA’s recommendation may make people feel safe when they are not. Having enough iodine pills on hand is not genuine safety. The pills are only one temporary measure to lessen the effects of radiation should another accident occur.
More realistic and more thorough preventative measures should be demanded of the NRA. If another meltdown occurs, there will be no magic pill.