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NRC has pills for nuclear neighbors

The agency wants to give irradiation tablets to people near nuclear plants, including Crystal River's.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001


The agency wants to give irradiation tablets to people near nuclear plants, including Crystal River's.

CRYSTAL RIVER -- After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Felicia Shewbart was not keen on the idea of living next to a nuclear plant.

But her husband, Keith, an Air Force reservist, assured Felicia and the couple's three children that they had nothing to worry about.

Until they heard about the pill.

"It's disconcerting that we're talking about this," said the 43-year-old Keith Shewbart, who moved his family from Houston six weeks ago.

A nationwide plan to distribute pills that can reduce cancer risks for people who live near nuclear plants has taken on new urgency since the terrorist attacks, a federal regulator said Wednesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's 103 nuclear reactors, will spend $800,000 to purchase and distribute 3.4-million potassium iodide tablets.

That could affect thousands of residents in Citrus and Levy counties, parts of which are within the 10-mile zone the government says is most at risk should radiation escape from Florida Power's plant in Crystal River.

There are two other nuclear plants in Florida: St. Lucie, outside Fort Pierce; and Turkey Point, 25 miles south of Miami.

"We are leaving it to the states to decide whether to give the pills to the people," NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said.

Florida Power spokesman Mac Harris said the company did not have a position on the issue, that it was a matter for state and local government.

The state Department of Health, which has already called for the use of potassium iodide for emergency workers and people who cannot evacuate a contaminated area, said it needs to review the proposal before commenting.

For that reason, it is unknown whether the pills, which are available on the Internet for less than a quarter each, would be given directly to people or stored by a government entity.

Potassium iodide, known as KI, blocks the thyroid gland's absorption of radioactive iodine and reduces the possibility of thyroid cancer.

The tablets do not protect against attacks on other organs, but thyroid cancer is among the most common sicknesses caused by radiation.

Even though KI has been in the news in recent weeks, Dricks said the NRC has been planning to create a stockpile for the past year.

"This is not a response to 9/11," Dricks said. "But obviously, it's taken on added urgency given the attacks."

The initiative came after a former NRC attorney petitioned the commission to consider KI in addition to other safeguards, such as evacuation and shelters.

The NRC had previously resisted the suggestion because of the possible side effects, which run from upset stomachs to severe shortness of breath.

But earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration said the benefits of KI far exceed the risks of overdose. The FDA provided specific dosage guidelines, saying adults should take a 130-milligram tablet while children should take 32 milligrams.

The FDA based its recommendations on studies from the Chernobyl accident in 1986. KI was distributed to millions of people in Poland and it was effective against thyroid cancer.

Groups for and against nuclear power welcomed the added protection but cautioned that KI is not a panacea. "Notwithstanding this, nuclear power plants operate extremely safely," Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group.

"There is no reason why the government shouldn't do it," said Ed Lyman of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington. "But it's certainly not a substitute for improving the safety and security of nuclear plants."

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