During his visit last Wednesday to DTE Energy's Fermi 2 nuclear plant along the western Lake Erie shoreline, 30 miles north of Toledo in Michigan's northern Monroe County, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Stephen Burns said he has no plans for changing his agency's position toward potassium iodide pills and believes that continuing the 10-mile radius for evacuation zones around nuclear plants is sufficient.
Now comes a new campaign by two anti-nuclear groups, the Washington-based Beyond Nuclear and the Michigan-based Alliance To Halt Fermi-3, calling upon the NRC to help get potassium iodide, or KI, pills in the hands of residents who live near the Fermi nuclear complex and to widen the evacuation zone out to 50 miles.
Both are issues that have been around for decades, but were rejuvenated following the March 2011 tsunami-related disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi complex.
Aerial of DTE Energy's Fermi 2 nuclear plant. Photo credit: DTE Energy.
The operating nuclear plant at the Fermi complex, Fermi 2, has the same General Electric Mark 1 reactor design as those at the Fukushima complex. So do 22 others in the United States. Burns has been touring them to see for himself some of the post-Fukushima improvements.
Ten miles has for years been designated as the evacuation zone for all nuclear plants, with 50 miles being the radius for which other response measures, including the destruction of all livestock and other forms of agriculture, would occur in the event of a meltdown.
The groups said they are calling on Fermi 2 federal and state emergency planners to require the direct delivery of KI pills to everyone within 50 miles, which would include the cities of Toledo, Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Potassium iodide pills are proven effective at warding off the uptake up radioactive iodine, but the NRC's posture has been to leave decisions on distribution up to individual states because of the debate over whether that would discourage some people from evacuating.
The NRC has at various times, though, picked up the cost for states willing to distribute pills, which only cost about a dime apiece.
“The simple lesson from the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan is that Michigan residents who live and work around Fermi need to be better prepared and protected in advance of a potential nuclear accident,” Ethyl Rivera, co-chair of the Alliance To Halt Fermi 3, said.
The groups said they launched the campaign because the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has required direct delivery of KI pills to Canadians in response to the Fukushima disaster.
Terry Jamieson, vice president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's technical branch, said in writing on the commission's website last fall that pre-distribution "is not a political placebo, but a practical and medically-proven way to protect people in the unlikely event of a nuclear emergency."
"The importance of pre-distribution is due to timing: KI works best when it is taken before or as soon as possible after exposure to radioactive iodine. KI is a protective measure that is generally used in combination with other protective measures such as sheltering or food restrictions," Jamieson wrote.
Michigan now offers vouchers for KI pills to residents who live with 10 miles of Michigan-based nuclear plants.
“KI is not an overall anti-radiation pill, but it is effective protection against the fastest moving cloud of radioactive iodine when used along with evacuation and sheltering in place,” Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear's reactor oversight director, said.