Japan’s nuclear watchdog weighs giving children priority in distribution of iodine tablets

Kyodo

Japan’s nuclear regulation body decided Wednesday to review the nation’s distribution system for iodine tablets against radiation exposure, with an eye on giving priority to children.

Current rules say iodine tablets should be in principle distributed in advance to all residents living within a 5-kilometer radius of 16 nuclear plants in 13 prefectures, where doing so is deemed difficult in emergency situations.

But some municipal governments have yet to hand out the tablets to all residents, including children who are more vulnerable to radiation exposure.

An expert panel set up by the Nuclear Regulation Authority will hold its first meeting next month to review the distribution system with the aim of compiling a report by April. The NRA will decide on a new policy based on the report.

Radioactive iodine released in nuclear accidents could be accumulated in the thyroid gland, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer, particularly among children.

If the tablets are taken beforehand, potassium iodine can saturate the thyroid gland and block radioactive iodine from being stored there.

When Japan was hit by a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, iodine tablets stored at municipal governments were not effectively used.

According to the NRA, the plan to review the pre-distribution of iodine tablets is based on a guideline compiled by the World Health Organization in 2017. WHO says the protection of children and adolescents must be considered a priority as their risk of developing thyroid cancer is higher than adults. Individuals older than 40 are less likely to benefit from iodine tablets.

WHO says the timely administration of the tablets is the key for blocking radioactive exposure, and the most effective protection is offered if they are taken before or immediately at the time of radioactive exposure.

Experts are expected to discuss whether it is reasonable to reflect the WHO recommendations in the NRA’s manual on the pre-distribution of iodine tablets.

Among other topics, the panel will study how doctors will be involved in tablet distributions. It will also hear the views of municipal governments on the matter.