Acknowledging the need for easy public access to potassium iodide (KI) pills is a further acceptance of the reality that nuclear accidents could happen in Canada.
Until the Fukushima accident the policy of Canada’s nuclear industry to KI pills was that they shouldn’t be distributed to populations near reactors because it might unnecessarily alarm people and give credence to charges that nuclear power was dangerous. Similar opinions were held on alerting siren systems, online real time radiation data, evacuation rehearsals, and other accident mitigation measures, all then regarded as talking points for ant-nuclear critics. Thankfully, these opinions of the DOUGS (Dumb Old Utility Guys) had been fading since the Chernobyl accident and have basically disappeared since Fukushima.
We need to understand what KI pills are and what they do. The thyroid gland in the neck regulates many important functions of our bodies such as “how quickly the body uses energy, makes proteins, and controls how sensitive the body is to other hormones” (quote from Wikipedia). To function properly, the thyroid needs iodine which is taken up from various food sources or, in places where sufficient iodine isn’t available in the local diet, from iodized table salt. Not surprisingly adequate iodine is also essential for the normal intellectual development of children.The iodizing of salt by adding compounds such as KI to it has proved a very cheap and effective public health measure in most countries of the world.
In a nuclear accident radioactive iodine is released as a gas which can readily be inhaled and so taken up in the thyroid and then can eventually cause thyroid cancer especially in children. By taking KI pills you can load up your thyroid with harmless (non-radioactive) iodine so when exposed to the radioactive type your already iodine-saturated thyroid won’t absorb it. For this to work you need to take the KI pill before any significant release of reactor iodine gets to you. This means you have to have pills on hand and ready to use as soon as you know an accident is happening.
KI pills are very good for protecting thyroids and preventing thyroid cancer in children – both very worthy objectives. However, they should not be viewed as a preventative or a cure-all for all types of radiation sickness as some uninformed people believe.
KI pills should be distributed to all homes within, say a 20 km radius, of reactors. Not as has been the case for example at Pickering where in a compromise scheme KI pills were stock piled in drugstores. Presumably, you go to your local pharmacy in case of a nuclear accident. There were also pills at local schools but I suppose if there were an accident outside of school hours you have to send your kids to the drugstore. Not only should the pills be in homes but there must also be an effective warning system that tells people living near reactors to take their KI pills.
The regulator and our nuclear utilities are finally considering doing exactly that after knowing since the 1950’s that it was feasible and done in other countries. There can be no excuse for any more foot dragging in providing KI pills to homes around Canadian reactors.