While Bob Herbert’s editorial in the New York Times warning about the country’s lack of preparation for a nuclear accident is right, it only tells half the story. What he does not mention is that the federal government has been aggressively ignoring what needs to be done. Today, the government still does not have an adequate stockpile of radiation-protective, potassium iodide (KI) tablets, despite the passage of law requiring it, a National Academy of Sciences report recommending a sufficient national stockpile to protect everyone at risk, the requests of individual members of Congress including half the Florida delegation, and the findings and recommendations of countless experts over the last two decades. There is no scientific dispute that KI is the best way to protect the public against the cancer that will result from exposure to radioactive iodine. All that’s left is the politics.
Unfortunately, the one Bush Administration policy the Obama Administration apparently has decided to leave intact is blind reliance on the emergency response plans developed by the nuclear industry. They argue KI isn’t necessary, because the government can evacuate everyone who might be at risk. After all, look how well evacuation worked during Hurricane Katrina.
To anyone watching the actions of BP in the Gulf, this reliance on soothing industry assurances sounds all-too familiar. And, as we all know, a nuclear emergency could be caused by something other than just an accident at an existing nuclear facility. Various federal agencies and departments have repeatedly warned about the possibility of terrorist attacks and our collective vulnerability.
Lack of KI could lead to thousands of avoidable cancers in an emergency. Once again, authorities will have to explain why they did not foresee the consequences of their failure to act responsibly. They will have to explain why they ignored the law, the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, and repeated requests by individual members of Congress. And, in this case, it will be impossible to blame someone else.