Nuclear Lifeboat

In 1894, the British Board of Trade imposed regulations requiring all vessels over 10,000 tons to carry at least 16 lifeboats for passenger and crew protection. Eighteen years later, when the 46,000 ton Titanic left on its maiden voyage, it carried 20 boats—more than required by law but only enough for about 52% of those on board. A few days later, 1500 people drowned.

British officials, scurrying to protect their reputations, defended the lack of lifeboats by noting that there was broad expert agreement that the ship was unsinkable. They enumerated Titanic’s numerous technical advances: the sophisticated system of water-tight doors, the innovative double hull design, and the world’s most modern wireless equipment. The government had done all that needed to be done to prevent sinking, they argued. Low tech wooden lifeboats would only increase passenger anxiety and clearly seemed unnecessary. Yet by modern standards, the absence of a simple back-up in case the sophisticated technology should ever fail, would be considered unthinkable.

Well, maybe not.

Today, there are over 100 operating nuclear power reactors in the United States. Each contains enough radioactivity to threaten millions of people with thyroid cancer in the event of an accidental or terrorist-related release. But experts who work in the industry assure us that an accident is nearly impossible given the sophisticated and highly complex safety controls, redundant systems, and three feet of concrete that protects the plants.

However, should the unexpected occur, there is little in place to protect the public, even though a simple, effective, and inexpensive back-up does exist. It’s a pharmaceutical called potassium iodide (KI), which, in the FDA’s words, “can be used [to] provide safe and effective protection against thyroid cancer caused by irradiation.” Like the Titanic’s lifeboats, KI is the simple final defense in case everything else fails. And like the lifeboats, KI has been ignored.

Stockpiling KI is not a new idea. American scientists recommended it in the 1950’s, cold-war era Soviet military and civilian defense programs depended on it, and in 1986 it was used extensively following the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Its benefits were unmistakable. Those who received KI were protected. But in irradiated areas for hundreds of miles downwind of the plant—where the drug was not distributed—thyroid cancer rose to epidemic levels. In one area “the use of KI was credited with permissible iodine content (less than 30 rad) in 97% of the evacuees tested” the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reported, pointing out that “thousands of measurements” demonstrated that radiation levels “were lower than would have been expected had this prophylactic measure not been taken.” In Poland, the government distributed KI to every child, and that country, alone among the nations in the region, suffered no cancer from Chernobyl.

Yet in the US today, nuclear power plants keep only enough on hand for their own workers and for people who live within 10 miles of the plants. Even the National Guard and other “first responder” groups lack the KI needed to protect those who are supposed to protect the rest of us.

It’s hard to understand why. At a yearly cost of pennies per pill, money can’t be the problem. And given the plans for 40 new nuclear reactors, the potential threat we face from Iranian and North Korean weapons, or the almost daily warnings about nuclear terrorism or suitcase bombs, it’s hard not to view KI as a prudent response to unstable world conditions.

Yet our government ignores KI. Despite the conclusion by the US National Academy of Science that KI should be available to everyone at risk, US officials tend to disguise the problem by suggesting that radiation emergencies are local events which can be dealt with by simply evacuating anyone living within 10 miles of the release. It’s a soothing notion that unfortunately overlooks the fact that, as the NRC has noted, “[At Chernobyl] the vast majority of the thyroid cancers were diagnosed among those living more than 50 km (31 miles) from the site.”

It’s a position that is more than foolish. It’s dangerous. Chernobyl demonstrated that a serious radiation release would affect millions of people, contaminate thousands of square miles, and cause thousands of cancers, almost all of which would be thyroid related. If the predicted terrorist catastrophe or power plant accident occurs, how will Homeland Security Officials explain the absence of KI in schools, hospitals, and in any city more than a few miles from the release point?

Will they claim we didn’t need “lifeboats”?

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