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Published: Monday, 1/8/2001

States mull stocking pills that may cut radiation risk

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

OAK HARBOR - States again are being encouraged to protect their residents against the deadly effects of a nuclear meltdown by stockpiling special pills for those who live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant.

But the debate among government agencies rages as to whether doing so would result in more harm than good.

Reversing a decision it made two years ago, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has renewed its offer to help states pay for stockpiling potassium iodide pills for the general public.

The pills have long been recognized by medical experts as an effective way to keep cancer-causing radiation from being absorbed by the thyroid gland, if taken within minutes of a meltdown.

While not necessarily a sure-proof antidote, the pills - which cost only about a dime apiece - could provide an extra layer of protection during an evacuation from a nuclear accident, officials have said. They are kept in reserve for emergency workers, health-care providers, hospital and nursing-home patients, prisoners, and others who could not be readily moved out of the 10-mile evacuation zone.

States have debated for years whether to make them available to the general public, with the theory being that doing so could slow down an evacuation.

The Ohio Department of Health's decision on the matter will directly affect the lives of about 16,500 people who live within 10 miles of FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse nuclear plant off State Rt. 2 in Ottawa County.

The Ohio Department of Health had long been skeptical about making the pills available, then came out in favor after the NRC offered in 1997 to help states pay for costs. But, in April of 1999, the NRC - citing costs - withdrew its offer.

The latest development occurred just before Christmas, when the NRC announced it had budgeted $400,000 to help states pay for costs during the 2001 fiscal year, and that it would be seeking similar funding for the 2002 fiscal year.

Jay Carey, Ohio health department spokesman, said the state is still leaning toward stockpiling pills - but has not committed itself to the program.

“We're interested. But we want to find out more about the NRC proposal and pending [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] guidelines,” he said.

Jan Strasma, NRC spokesman, said the ultimate decision rests with state health departments and local emergency planning agencies.

The NRC regulates the nuclear industry but is required by law to let state and local officials establish policies for evacuations, he said.

Michigan's decision will be a consensus of three state agencies: The Michigan State Police, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Community Health, according to Dave Minnaar, chief of the DEQ's radiological protection section.

Michigan remains “unconvinced” that it should distribute the pills, even if they're provided free of charge by the NRC. But state officials will take a look at new information that is provided, he said.

“We've never argued against the effectiveness of KI [potassium iodide],” Mr. Minnaar said.

Michigan's sole concern is whether evacuations would be impeded by the time it takes people to either find pills in their own medicine cabinets, or to stop by a distribution point, he said.

The decision ultimately affects thousands of Michigan residents who live within a 10-mile radius of the Detroit Edison Co.'s Fermi II nuclear plant in northern Monroe County.



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