WASHINGTON – State and county health officials are finalizing plans this week for the distribution of 160,000 potassium iodide pills to the 80,000 Maryland residents who live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant.
Even as it fine-tunes the plan, however, critics say the state is falling short, arguing that a much larger area and a much greater number of people could be affected by a nuclear accident or terrorist attack.
“The release will move with the speed of the wind,” said Anna Aurilio of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG). She argued that the area state officials should be considering “should be more like 50 to 100 miles.”
State officials ordered the potassium iodide pills from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, amid rising concern about the possibility of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. The pills can help protect against thyroid cancer, a common illness related to radiation exposure.
Maryland is one of 11 states that requested the pills from the NRC, which offered them free to any state.
While Maryland is home to just one nuclear power plant, Calvert Cliffs in Lusby, a second plant, Peach Bottom, sits just a few miles over the border in Pennsylvania. Emergency officials estimate that 80,000 Marylanders live within a 10-mile radius of the two plants.
Officials hope to distribute the potassium iodide pills to individuals and schools near the plants in the next few weeks. Mike Sharon, chief of the emergency response division of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said pills have already been sent to health departments in Calvert, Cecil, Dorchester, Harford and St. Mary’s counties.
Harford County Health Department Director Thomas Thomas said his agency has its portion of pills and that it has sent a draft of the distribution plan to state officials. Once the plan is approved, Thomas said the department plans to set up five distribution points throughout the county where residents can pick up the tablets.
Thomas said his department plans to begin the distribution process in the next few weeks.
The St. Mary’s County Health Department has released a list of schools in the county that have already received pills. Schools within the 10-mile radius are Town Creek, Hollywood and Green Holly elementary schools; Esperanza Middle School; and St. John’s Catholic School.
Sharon said that while the pills are distributed to the public, county officials will track who receives them and where they live, since the medication has to be replaced after five years.
But critics say that while the distribution of pills is a good first step, it will not solve the larger problem that residents face of living next to a potential ecological disaster.
“While we definitely support the distribution of potassium iodide tablets, it is not a panacea. The more important aspect of the problem is to close the nuclear facilities,” said Aurilio, the legislative director for MaryPIRG.
The group claims that nuclear power plants pose a danger to both the environment and to nearby residents, and it has been working to close nuclear facilities across the country since the late 1970s.
Aurilio pointed out that while the potassium iodide tablets will protect against thyroid cancer, there are many other types of cancer related to radioactive exposure that the pills would not prevent.
Troy Jones, the owner of NukePills.com, agrees that the state is being too conservative in its approach.
“People will be affected way beyond the 10-mile radius,” in the case of a radiation release, Jones said. “This is just a token gesture by the NRC.”
Although Jones criticized the NRC’s policies, he is enjoying its business. He said the NRC had purchased 6 million tablets from his company since the beginning of the year.