Prescription for Disaster

If San Onofre is so safe, why are federal officials pushing anti-radiation pills on its neighbors?

Twenty years ago, on the morning of March 28, 1979, an explosion as powerful as several 1,000-pound bombs shook the Pennsylvania countryside. A hydrogen bubble inside a Three Mile Island nuclear-power-plant reactor had almost blown through the containment wall. Hours earlier, plant engineers had identified the first warning signs of a total meltdown; before long, alarms all over Three Mile Island marked the passing minutes with a terrifying, high-pitched whine. Most nearby residents didn't wait for an official evacuation order. TV crews captured the mayhem as roads and freeways leading out of the towns of Goldsboro and Harrisburg became slow-motion, honking rivers of station wagons and town cars.

By Day Two of the worst nuclear disaster in American history, no general evacuation of the public had been ordered. After a lengthy argument with Joseph Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh reluctantly ordered everyone within 10 miles of Three Mile Island to stay indoors-for 30 minutes. The following afternoon, Thornburgh-who kept close counsel with both the NRC and optimistic plant officials throughout the disaster-finally ordered nearby elementary schools shut down indefinitely. For those still listening, Thornburgh called for a limited evacuation of all pregnant women and children within a 5-mile radius downwind of the plant.

Thornburgh's decision not to order a general evacuation would not be soon forgotten by survivors of the disaster or by anti-nuclear activists. Nor would another aspect of the catastrophe: the fact that state and local officials had failed to stockpile potassium iodide (KI).

Administered early in a nuclear accident like the one at Three Mile Island, KI can prevent radioactive-iodine poisoning, which causes thyroid cancer in humans, especially children. The nuclear industry takes KI seriously: emergency workers at Three Mile Island, for example, had been equipped with KI tablets.

But not nearly enough of the pills were available for nearby residents. Officials ordered an emergency shipment of the tablets from a St. Louis company. A full week later, on April 4, 1979, 237,013 of the yellow pills arrived in the communities near Three Mile Island. It's still unclear exactly how much radioactive iodine was released at Three Mile Island. What's clear is that the pills arrived too late to help anyone who might have been exposed.

Today, nuclear-energy spokespeople and government officials say a disaster like the one at Three Mile Island is virtually impossible, even unimaginable given advances in nuclear engineering and emergency planning that have taken place since 1979. "The odds are millions and millions to one," said a Southern California Edison spokesman who has worked at four U.S. nuclear-power plants.

So why, two decades after Three Mile Island, is the U.S. government now urging states that operate nuclear-power plants to distribute anti-radiation pills to the public?

KI, the symbols attached to potassium iodide by the periodic table, has exactly one medical benefit for human beings: if swallowed within a few hours of exposure to radiation, a 130-milligram tablet will block the thyroid's absorption of a radioactive isotope called iodine 131. Iodine 131 is one of the many radioactive isotopes produced during nuclear fission, the process by which nuclear energy is created in U.S. reactors. Nuclear-plant officials and government health experts point out that not everyone can take the pill. Some people, such as those who can't eat shellfish, are allergic to all forms of iodide. The pill is much less effective if taken more than a few hours after exposure.

Whether KI's benefits are at all substantial is still a matter of much debate among scientists and environmentalists. One of KI's leading proponents in California is Dr. Willard Osibin, a longtime member of the environmental group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Osibin lives 22 miles upwind of the Pacific Gas & Electric plant at Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo, where, throughout the 1970s, the government stockpiled KI at every firehouse within 5 miles of the plant. One day in 1977, Osibin said, local authorities told the public that the tablets had to go. The officials claimed KI had at least two shortcomings: deteriorating stockpiles needed to be replenished every few years, and there was no more funding. As quietly as they had come to San Luis Obispo-and with little public protest-the pills disappeared.

Osibin says he spent years badgering local authorities to bring back the tablets, but to no avail. "We couldn't move a button on this issue," he complained.

The disaster two years later at Three Mile Island didn't change KI's status around Diablo Canyon. It would take another, even greater nuclear disaster for the U.S. government to re-examine the radiation pill. In 1986, an aging, outdated nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, went up in a cloud of radioactive smoke. At first, the official death count was just 22 people, all of whom had died when the reactor's containment structure exploded. Yet in the years following the world's worst nuclear accident, the first long-term effects of radiation exposure from Chernobyl began to surface with horrifying results. Between 1991 and 1992, Russian scientists in Belarus discovered 131 new cases of thyroid cancer-precisely the disease that KI is manufactured to prevent. The victims were almost entirely young children who had been exposed to radioactive iodine in their food; many others were still in their mothers' wombs when the accident occurred.

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