Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) was today joined by public health and nuclear safety experts to call on the White House to implement a decade-old law authored by Rep. Markey that requires the supply of radiation "emergency pills" to U.S. citizens who live within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant. Rep. Markey and leaders of the American Thyroid Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility today wrote White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, urging him to overturn the Bush administration's decision not to implement the law.
"After the Japanese nuclear meltdown, U.S. citizens need to have this emergency radiation pill available for their families," said Rep. Markey. "Massachusetts citizens who live near the Pilgrim, Seabrook or Vermont Yankee nuclear power plants are being ignored by the government, with potentially dire consequences if an accident were to ever occur."
The pills, potassium iodide -- also called KI -- are safe, effective and inexpensive means of protecting against the cancer-causing effects of radioactive iodine that can be released into the atmosphere following a nuclear meltdown. According to recent press reports, radiation in some areas near the reactors that melted down in Japan surged to as much as 700 times normal levels before residents evacuated, highlighting the need for the medication to be stockpiled in private residences and other public facilities so that people can take it in the first critical hours after they are exposed to radiation, as they are in the process of evacuating the area.
The letter to Dr. Holdren states that a failure to implement the law, "would be tantamount to a rejection of both sound science and the opportunity to learn important lessons from the 2011 nuclear meltdowns in Japan."
The letter points out several fundamental flaws associated with the Bush administration's decision not to implement the 2002 law:
· The Bush administration decision was based on the assumption that U.S. nuclear reactors would be unlikely to experience the sort of meltdowns and radiation releases later experienced in Japan and that such an accident would take hours or even days to develop. The letter points out that there are 23 nuclear reactors in the U.S. with identical designs to the Fukushima reactors that melted down and that radiation was released from those reactors within hours of the blackout that initiated the meltdowns.
· The Bush administration decision assumed that evacuations in a U.S. nuclear accident would be completed before any radiation was released. The letter says that while radiation releases in Japan took place within about 11 hours of the earthquake, it took the NRC five days to order the evacuation of U.S. citizens located within 50 miles surrounding the stricken reactors. The Japanese government took 26 hours to order the evacuation of a 12.4-mile zone and 5 days to begin distribution of potassium iodide. Recent press reports on the Japanese disaster indicated that, "in one area, the level of radiation had surged to more than 700 times the normal level, indicating that many local residents were exposed to high levels of radiation before they evacuated."
· While the Obama administration has thus far failed to order the distribution of potassium iodide to residents living within 20 miles of U.S. nuclear reactors, during the Fukushima meltdowns it distributed it to government employees who were in Tokyo, almost 150 miles away from the stricken reactors.
Rep. Markey amended the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 to make potassium iodide available to state and local governments to meet the needs of all persons living within a 20-mile radius of a nuclear power plant. However, the Bush administration chose to ignore these provisions and declined to implement them, thereby denying communities access to stockpiles of KI.
In December 2009, Rep. Markey wrote President Obama urging him to move forward with full implementation of the provisions. However, Dr. Holdren's office wrote Rep. Markey in July of 2010 upholding the Bush administration's position.
In March 2011, Rep. Markey sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as well as to Dr. Holdren, again urging the implementation of the radiation pill law.