Published on Sunday, June 30, 2002 in the Boston Globe
NRC Pill Policy Leaves Many at Risk, Critics Allege
by Fred Kaplan
NEW YORK - In the event that a nuclear power plant melts down or is blown up, many scientists say, the surest preventive against thyroid cancer would be for everyone within 100 miles to take potassium iodide pills for two weeks.
Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has just begun to stockpile the pills, has bought only enough for a two-day supply - and only for residents within 10 miles of a power plant.
Alan Morris and Bruce Rodin run Anbex Inc., the only company in the United States that makes the pill. It does so under the trade name IOSAT in a factory outside New York City that makes various drugs for several companies. (They decline to diclose the factory's location for fear that terrorists might target it.)
They recently received an order from the NRC for 9 million pills, but they have harsh criticism for their top customer.
''It's disgraceful, it's criminal,'' said Morris, 60, sitting in a Manhattan diner. ''The NRC gives you two days' worth of pills while you're supposed to evacuate. But I don't know how you evacuate Westchester County,'' the densely populated New York suburb where the Indian Point nuclear plant is located. ''Where do they all go?'' he asked.
Morris has a vested interest in this view - it would mean more business for his company - but there is evidence to support it.
After the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the Soviet government, which had its own potassium iodide stockpiles, handed out pills to nearly everyone within a 30-mile zone.
US government studies show that people inside the zone who took the pills suffered far fewer cases of thyroid cancer than people 200 miles away who did not take the pills.
NRC spokeswoman Rosetta Virgilio defended the commission's 10-mile zone. ''The Chernobyl plant did not have anything like the containment of American nuclear power plants,'' she said. ''The containment is very hard to break through.''
Frank von Hippel, a physicist at Princeton University who first urged the NRC to stockpile potassium iodide in 1974, called the commission's policy ''opportunistic and perverse.''
''For the 10-mile zone to make any sense,'' he explained, ''you'd have to have a scenario where only one-tenth of 1 percent of the iodine gets out of the containment. Besides, within 10 miles, you can evacuate; it's further downwind that evacuation becomes impractical. And most of the thyroid cancer would be far beyond the 10-mile zone.''
Von Hippel emphasized that potassium iodide would be useless against a radiological ''dirty bomb'' or a nuclear weapon. But against a nuclear power disaster, he said, there are few better precautions.
In the fallout from a core meltdown, the thyroid would receive a dose of radioactive iodine 100 times higher than any radiation received by other body parts.
The thyroid craves iodine, but can become saturated. An early intake of nonradioactive iodine, such as potassium iodide, would saturate the thyroid. So, the radioactive iodine would not be absorbed by the thyroid.
In an indirect way, von Hippel inspired Morris to go into the potassium iodide business. In 1979, after the Three Mile Island accident, Morris was working in New York for Publisher's Clearinghouse. As a benefit, he received a lot of free magazine subscriptions. In an issue of Science, he read an article by von Hippel, who calculated that if the core had melted down, 450,000 children could have contracted thyroid disease.
''I had a 2-year-old at the time,'' Morris recalled.
''My child was 1-year-old,'' added Rodin, now 57, a friend of Morris's who was working at a solar energy company.
They learned that one company was making potassium iodide, but only for nuclear industry workers. The Food and Drug Administration was calling for someone to make a more widely available product. Morris and Rodin applied. In 1980, they were approved and, 22 years later, remain the only ones in the field.
One reason for their monopoly status is that the market has been all but nonexistent.
A brief flurry of orders arrived shortly before Jan. 1, 2000, amid fears that Y2K would affect nuclear power plants.
Another spurt of orders were made in March 2000, from Massachusetts, when nuclear-safety activists persuaded the town of Duxbury to order one tablet for each of its 3,700 schoolchildren and 20,220 for emergency shelters.
Morris has moved to Florida to run a paper company. Rodin lives in New Jersey and owns a lighting company. ''We never considered this a business that would put food on the table,'' Morris said of their drug enterprise.
Then came Sept. 11.
The NRC suddenly ordered millions of tablets and has delivered many of them for free to 14 state governments, including Massachusetts, which, after long resistance, ordered 660,000 pills - two for each resident within 10 miles of the nuclear plants in Plymouth, Seabrook, N.H., and Vernon, Vt.
Vermont ordered enough to supply those who live within 10 miles of the Vermont Yankee plant. New Hampshire ordered 350,000, enough to double-dose area schoolchildren. In Westchester County, schools and summer camps are passing out the pills.
Tens of thousands of individuals have bought the pills from pharmacies, where they are increasingly on sale, at $10 for a package of 14, a two-week supply. (The NRC pays 18 cents per pill.)
Von Hippel, not just Morris and Rodin, contends that the NRC should buy more.
''The NRC seems to think that if you admit a situation might arise where you'd need a pill like this, public confidence in nuclear power would erode,'' von Hippel said.
Peter Crane, who was a lawyer in the NRC general counsel's office from 1975-99, agrees. Crane, who now lives in Seattle, recalled that in 1985 NRC staff analysts concluded that the pill was not cost-effective, given what they saw as a near-zero probability of a meltdown. The study was ordered after the Three Mile Island incident.
Nine months later, the Chernobyl disaster occurred. The NRC reaffirmed its conclusion. Crane filed a formal document, calling on the commissioners to change their position. After five years of study, they declined again, he said.
In 1997 he proposed that the NRC merely ''consider'' endorsing the pills and, meanwhile, distribute them free to states that want them.
The NRC accepted this idea in January 2001.
When the jets smashed into the World Trade Center in September, the NRC had not yet put the policy into effect. Not until November did it start ordering and offering pills.
''It's very odd,'' Crane said. ''The most pronuclear country in the world is France. The French have the biggest and most effective potassium iodide program. They think that it's good PR, that it shows they care about the public.''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company