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January 13, 2002


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Regional News | Article published January 13, 2002
Ohio mulls radiation protection


OAK HARBOR -- Some extra peace of mind could be in store for 16,500 people who live near FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County.

After years of review, Ohio now appears ready to commit itself to an agreement to make free potassium iodide pills available to residents who live within the immediate 10-mile evacuation zone of the plant, as well as the utility’s Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland and its Beaver Valley nuclear plant in western Pennsylvania.

The pills can save lives in the event of a nuclear disaster, by keeping cancer-causing radiation from being absorbed by the thyroid gland. They would have to be taken within six hours of exposure and are not a sure-fire antidote for all types of radiation. But medical experts have said they would no doubt boost the odds of surviving a Chernobyl-type meltdown.

The state health department will soon announce dates for at least one public meeting near each of the plants.

Barring major opposition, a formal request to have Ohio participate likely will be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April by either the health department or a state panel called the Utility Radiological Safety Board, said Jay Carey, Ohio Department of Health spokesman.

"We’re working in that direction of participating, but there are some logistical issues that have to be worked out," he said.

At last week’s quarterly meeting, the six-member radiological board authorized the public meetings, but did not schedule dates. It has its next quarterly meeting in April. The board is represented by the Ohio departments of agriculture, health, and commerce, the state Emergency Management Agency, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Details still need to be worked out how the pills would be distributed, Mr. Carey said.

The NRC has wavered on the potassium iodide issue for years, first encouraging states to stockpile pills for the general public, then retreating because of budget concerns before coming full circle and offering to pick up the initial tab for all states willing to make the pills available.

The pills have a shelf life of five to seven years, which means states could end up buying more after the initial distribution.

The issue was jump-started by the events of Sept. 11 and the Food and Drug Administration’s recently issued guidance for the pills.

In long-awaited treatment guidelines released Dec. 10, the FDA lowered the recommended dosage for children.

It also said there is little chance of experiencing dangerous side effects from potassium iodide.

Ten days later, on Dec. 20, the NRC stepped up its offer by announcing it will soon make the pills available to whatever states request them. It set aside $800,000 to fund initial stockpiles, and said it was in the process of negotiating deals with drug manufacturers. The pills cost about a dime each.

Massachusetts became the latest participant, notifying the NRC of its decision Thursday. Alabama, Arizona, and Tennessee became participants in years past.

Michigan has four nuclear plants, including Detroit Edison Co.’s Fermi II nuclear plant in northern Monroe County.

To date, it has shown little interest in potassium iodide. Officials there have the same anxiety that has been expressed elsewhere - that the pills could give a false sense of security and impede evacuations.

On Friday, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality administrator who oversees the issue said his state hasn’t ruled out participating.

But he said it hasn’t budged from its previously stated position either.

"We’re still assessing information that’s been made available," Dave Minnaar, chief of the Michigan DEQ’s radiological protection section, said.

Ohio’s interest in the Beaver Valley site stems from the fact that the 10-mile evacuation zone extends across the Pennsylvania state line.

That has created a scenario in which eastern Ohio residents who live within 10 miles of the Beaver Valley complex could be provided potassium iodide pills during an emergency, but not western Pennsylvania residents who live that close.

David Allard, radiation bureau chief of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the Keystone state hasn’t ruled out participating - but remains wary about sending out the wrong signals during an evacuation.

"Having lived through Three Mile Island, we take a very conservative approach to emergency response," Mr. Allard said. "The best way to protect the public is to have them evacuate."

The issue of stockpiling the pills is not as clear cut as it sounds, he said.

Pennsylvania officials are concerned that the FDA’s decision to recommend lower dosages for children could result in unnecessary confusion and delay as people scramble to leave their homes, Mr. Allard said.

He said he believes the NRC is willing to make the pills available only in adult dosages of 130 milligrams, twice the recommended dosage for youths ages 3 to 18, four times the recommended dosages for children 1 month to 3 years of age, and eight times the recommended dosage for infants.

"Are people really supposed to dice these pills in halves, quarters, and eighths as they’re trying to grab diapers and get out the door?" Mr. Allard asked. "For everyone to jump in and say ‘Give us 130 mg tablets,’ I’m not sure if that’s prudent."

The pills have been stockpiled for years for emergency workers, health-care providers, and others, from hospital patients to prisoners, who could not be evacuated immediately.

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