Update: Illinois has enough anti-radiation drugs

By Julie Wernau
Posted March 25 at 6:06 p.m.

If a nuclear reactor were to melt down in Illinois, the state has enough potassium iodide on hand to distribute to residents living within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said Friday.

A top official with the agency had said earlier at a public forum hosted by U.S. Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin that there weren’t enough tablets on hand.

An IEMA spokeswoman clarified Friday, saying that the agency has 90,000 tablets on hand for first responders and 175,000 tablets on-hand to distribute to the public. She said about 180,000 people total live within 10 miles of a nuclear reactor in Illinois. Joseph Klinger, the assistant director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency misspoke when he said 180,000 people on average live within 10 miles of each nuclear plant in Illinois.

“Do you have 180,000 doses of potassium iodide available in each (evacuation zone)?” Kirk asked at Friday’s forum.

“We don’t have that much,” Klinger said.

Illinois is one of a handful of states in the U.S. that doesn’t participate in a federal program to supply pills containing potassium iodide, which is also known by the chemical symbol KI. The pills fill the thyroid with iodine to help reduce the risk of cancer in the event of a radiation release like Japan’s.

Illinois has the largest number of nuclear reactors and the largest amount of radioactive waste — nearly 8,000 metric tons — in the U.S. The last time KI pills were distributed to people living within evacuation zones was in 2002, he said, as part of a post-9/11 program.

While the shelf-life of those pills was until 2007, Klinger said the pills are still potent. Anyone who moved within 10 miles of a nuclear plant after 2002 has not received the pills.

“In Illinois, we’ve always felt the best way to protect citizens is to evacuate,” he said.

If KI pills were distributed freely, Klinger argued, citizens might see it as a panacea to protect against radiation and decide not to evacuate, when in fact, the pills don’t protect against radiation poisoning or other side effects. The pills are meant to be taken with 24 hours of a catastrophic nuclear event.

The stockpile is important because it is unlikely Illinois residents would be able to access the pills in an emergency. Although there is no crisis in the United States and Japan’s dangerous radiation levels are an ocean away, Illinois residents have been stocking up on the pills. Area drug stores told the Tribune last week that they’d sold out of the supplement and have been unable to place new orders. Some said they’d received more than 100 phones calls in a matter of days. Deerfield-based Walgreen Co. said they do not stock the product.

Google searches for “potassium iodide” peaked March 16 in the U.S. and were up more than 3000 percent month-over-month – their highest relative search volume since 2004 – with the most searches in western states like Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California, according to Google.

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, 36,493 people in Illinois live within 10 miles of Braidwood, 16,090 for LaSalle, 71,130 for Dresden, 13,268 for Clinton, 27,297 for Byron and 5,876 for Quad Cities for a total of 170,154.

At Friday’s forum — which also included representatives from Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Argonne National Laboratories – U.S. Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin put the nuclear industry on notice that they’d like specific questions answered in light of the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan.

The industry is already under a microscope. The federal government has mandated that the NRC do a complete review of U.S. nuclear reactors, with hearings scheduled every 30 days. At the same time, Exelon says it is conducting its own internal inspection program. So far, both said they had not found any glaring concerns.

But the nuclear crisis has the industry answering questions about everything from the way that spent nuclear fuel is stored to the seismic stability of the nation’s nuclear plants.

On Friday, Durbin and Kirk joined the fray. They called for the U.S. to revisit a long-abandoned plan to “reprocess” nuclear fuel, rather than store it, and renew the bid to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. They also asked the state to take a second look at its emergency management procedures and determine prescribed evacuation zones and KI tablet distribution.

The senators also called for scrutiny of the G.E. Mark I reactors at the Quad Cities and Dresden power plants, which have a similar design to the plant releasing radiation in Japan.

Exelon Generation’s Chief Operating Officer Charles Pardee said that while the original designs are similar, there are marked differences between the reactors in Japan and the ones in the U.S.

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  1. TGHW March 25 at 4:37 pm

    And rightly so. There is no need to keep them on hand here as generally speaking, our plants are not at risk from tsunami’s. They are built to withstand just about anything else. This is just more fear mongering by the media to try to stir up controversy.

  2. jgoodby March 25 at 5:04 pm

    Irresponsible headline. You tie it to the Japan crisis, as if we’re supposed to take anti-radiation drugs now! Please, stop and think before you do stupid things like this.

  3. DaveKraft March 25 at 7:15 pm

    The American Thyroid Association recommends that KI be distributed to households within a 50 mi. radius of a nuclear reactor, and that emergency stockpiles be maintained nearby. See: http://thyroid.org
    The Dept. of Health and Human Services recommends distribution to households within 10 miles of a nuclear reactor — the actual emergency planning zone defined by the NRC (yet, NRC does not require or suggest this).
    KI is a proven and effective PROPHYLACTIC intervention, DESIGNED to protect the thyroid from radioactive iodine absorption. In a nuclear disaster like that in Japan — or here — radioactive iodine is both one of the most prevalent and earliest of the radioactive isotopes to escape a damaged reactor; that’s why it’s important to have it available early and taken before exposure.
    Anyone who irresponsibly recommends otherwise is likely to recommend not using condoms, or using the batteries in smoke detectors for something else. After all the probabilities of pregnancy and home fires are so small….right.
    Dave Kraft, nuclear Energy Information Service, Chicago

  4. NNotebook March 25 at 7:35 pm

    I wonder if a good deal of the public health and environmental dangers are being hidden from the public. Certainly, no one in authority in the city, county or state public health agencies are doing anything to show leadership. http://www.neighborhoodnotebook.com

  5. Moregarbage March 25 at 8:59 pm

    “The last time KI pills were distributed to people living within evacuation zones was in 2002, he said, as part of a post-9/11 program.”

    Wow, Really? I live within 10 miles of a plant and have for years. I don’t know a single resident within our community that has EVER been provided with KI pills.

  6. judy zimmer March 27 at 6:45 pm

    I live in braidwood ill a few miles from exelon nuclear plant and we know the least amount of information and they do not tell the truth to any of the citizens here