Because of the risk of possible terrorist attacks at the 15 UK nuclear reactors and >20 nuclear reactors in nearby countries, and because of the advanced ages of UK nuclear reactors, there is a need for greater preparedness to deal with nuclear accidents and incidents.
For these reasons, in June 2016, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee set up an Inquiry on Science in Emergencies: chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents. However neither the Committee’s subsequent poor Report nor the Government’s anodyne response dealt with the real issues in a forthright and open matter. In particular, they discussed neither the problems of evacuations (which I have discussed) nor the scientific evidence which amply supports the pre-distribution of stable iodine as occurs in most other EU countries.
In the event of a nuclear accident or incident, the three main responses are shelter, evacuation, and stable iodine prophylaxis. This article deals solely with iodine prophylaxis.
It is important to note that stable iodine ingestion only protects against thyroid cancer, and not any other cancers which could arise after exposure to the many nuclides which would be released if a serious nuclear accident or incident were to occur. However it is the only cancer that we can prevent or mitigate if advance preparations are made.
The prior ingestion of stable iodine (often potassium iodide, ie KI) is an effective means of protecting the thyroid gland from thyroid cancer and other thyroid effects, especially among children. But it is necessary to consume stable iodine immediately after a nuclear incident: the best way to provide for this is the advance distribution of stable iodine prior to any accident or incident.
In the UK, the Government has decided not to pre-distribute stable iodine tablets to the public. This is a poor decision. It was probably influenced by the Government’s strong support, bordering on obsession, for nuclear power. In other words, political considerations are held to be more important than public safety. Information on the locations of stale iodine supplies, stocks held, and arrangements for their distribution in the event of a nuclear incident or accident is unavailable in the UK.
After the warning of a nuclear accident or incident, it appears that the Government intends to distribute stable iodine to “…schools, hospitals and evacuation reception centres…” and “collection centres” for collection by the public. It is likely that such distribution would take at least two days or longer, depending on the sizes of the affected areas. During this time, plumes would continue to cross such areas depending on the nature of the accident, wind direction and wind velocity.
At present, the Government assumes that most thyroid doses (from the radioative iodine in the plumes) will occur via the food pathway, mainly from the ingestion of milk and leafy green vegetables. This pathway could take a few days and could give time for stable iodine distribution to take place. However recent scientific evidence indicates that inhalation is much more important than ingestion for radio-iodine doses. This means advance stable iodine distribution is vitally necessary. The Government is ignoring this information, thereby putting the UK public at risk.
Several EU countries have already pre-distributed KI to all families. In addition, KI supplies and dose information are available on line from non-UK sources. It is therefore recommended that
- Stable iodine tablets, with clear dose instructions and the reasons for their advance distribution, should be distributed to all families within at least 30 km of nuclear facilities in the UK without waiting for an incident or accident to occur.
- Since radioactive plumes could reach cities with large populations (e.g. >500,000 people) located beyond 30 km, stable iodine pre-distribution should carried out here as well. This is because rapid evacuations from such large cities would be impractical, but their inhabitants should be afforded some protection.
- For this reason, and to deal with the possibility of radioactive plumes from nuclear reactors on the continent, the Government should pre-distribute stable iodine to all families throughout the UK, as occurs in most other European countries.
A more detailed (9 pages) report can be found here main report on KI.
In addition, Annex A contains the UK Government’s statement on stable iodine. Annex B contains the scientific evidence on the need to predistribute stable iodine. Annex C contains an interesting account of what happened in Poland re iodine suplies after Chernobyl. Annex D lists acronyms and abbreviations.