by Stephen Bryen*
If you live anywhere near a nuclear reactor, especially if you live or work downwind from a reactor you should consider buying Potassium Iodide (Iodine) tablets for yourself and your family. In fact, that is why Belgium and Holland have now ordered enough pills for their entire populations. And it is why the Department of Homeland Security bought 14 million iodine tablets in 2014.
Officially the reason for buying the pills is the danger of a nuclear accident, caused either by technical failure or a natural event such as an earthquake, tidal wave or flooding like what caused the still-continuing Fukushima crisis. Fukushima involved three nuclear meltdowns; Chernobyl one. Both caused long term evacuations of population. The authorities created no-go areas. The Chernobyl area has been closed off for thirty years.**
There have been other serious nuclear accidents. In the United States the worst of those reported was, of course, Three Mile Island (1979) near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
But one of the earliest and worst was the secret Russian reactor built to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Called the Mayak (“Lighthouse”) reactor similar to the US Hanford site*** (which itself remains highly contaminated). Mayak was built between 1945 and 1948. Itself prone to multiple accidents, the worst happened on September 27th, 1957 when a storage tank located at Kyshtym exploded. The Russians told no one, and information about the disaster only became available in 1979, twenty-two years later. The explosion of the storage tank destroyed more than two dozen villages and contaminated a vast area, rendering Lake Irtysh and the Techa River unusable and exposing more than 470,000 people to radiation.
When a nuclear reactor incident occurs, a variety of radioactive poisons are released, some of which become airborne and the rest contaminate the earth and underground and surface water sources. The typical radioactive fallout includes radioactive iodine (I131, I132), Cesium (Cs137, Cs134) and Tellurium (Te132).
Radioactive iodine is a major uranium and plutonium fission product. It has a half life of a little more than 8 days, and it is the greatest immediate threat to populations near a nuclear reactor or nuclear storage site. (The other nuclear contaminants can last from hundreds to thousands of years!)
The human thyroid will rapidly absorb radioactive iodine, which can immediately cause severe radiation sickness and leading to a variety of cancers starting with thyroid cancer. However, if the thyroid is pre-treated with non-radioactive iodide salts, it will have no room to absorb radioactive iodine. Consequently, the best defense against radioactive iodine caused by a nuclear “event” is either a potassium iodide tablet or liquid that can be rapidly administered before an individual is actually exposed to radioactive iodine. These pills and liquids (for infants and the elderly) are what the Department of Homeland Security and the Europeans are stockpiling. They are also readily available for individual purchase on the open market without a prescription in the United States.
Why all of a sudden are countries buying up large supplies of these pills?
There is worry about a nuclear accident or disaster from man-made accidents or natural causes. The Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz has calculated that such events may occur every 10 to 20 years, some 200 times more than earlier estimates. And while Fukushima may have convinced the Germans to consider shutting down nuclear reactors (there are 8 in Germany), and the Italians to reverse a decision to go back into the reactor business, Fukushima does not explain the rush to buy iodine pills.
The real threat is terrorism. In Europe there are 185 nuclear power plants and more are under construction. In addition, there are many “research” reactors and also storage sites for radioactive materials as well as labs that produce radioactive materials for industry and for medicine. In the United States there are 99 nuclear reactors, of which 61 are commercially operating power plants. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sources of radioactive materials and plenty of targets for terrorists to exploit.
We know with absolute clarity based on the findings that have emerged from investigations in Belgium and France that Islamic terrorists plan (not just planned) to attack nuclear reactor sites and associated laboratories, in one case even kidnap a nuclear manager. We also know that many of these facilities have been heavily penetrated by Jihadists. There is virtually no available evidence that suggests such threats have been removed. And, as far as the situation in the United States is concerned, we have no real idea of the security of US nuclear facilities, either civilian or military.
Many questions also arise whether governments are capable of rapidly distributing the pills and liquids they have purchased. Unlike Israel where kits are pre-distributed and renewed on a regular basis (against chemical, biological and nuclear threats), there is no system in the US or Europe that is even marginally comparable. In case of a nuclear event one can say that it is unlikely that even a fraction of the pills can be distributed in an actual crisis. Thus, a reactor failure in Maryland or Virginia, for example, would create a massive crisis as people scrambled to try to get their hands on iodine pills.
(left) A cesium “dirty” bomb found in a Moscow Park claimed by Chechen terrorists
There are three vital steps that must be taken to protect populations against nuclear disaster.
First, clean up the security around all nuclear facilities. Bring in competent and powerful forces to guard the facilities from external attack and move to clean out security risks inside. In the US this might mean using the National Guard to protect the perimeter of nuclear sites and the FBI to vet employees and validate security systems. In Europe it means using NATO forces for perimeter protection and Interpol to check internal security and validate employees, with authority to remove anyone suspected of a connection to radical Islamic organizations.
Second, set up a real distribution system on the Israeli model for people living in the vicinity of nuclear installations and in sensitive urban areas under threat. This means putting vital supplies such as potassium iodine in the hands of businesses and families now, not after a terrorist strike.
Third, really crack down on the Jihadists such that they cease to exist. The wimpy approach of the Europeans is not an example of how to deal with an existential threat. America isn’t much better. If we really use draconian force against terrorists, we will finally be a lot safer. If terrorists are under severe pressure, they will run away. If they don’t run away, run them down so they cannot operate inside of sympathetic local communities. For this it is justified to give law enforcement and special units special authorization to do what is necessary to liquidate the threat.
Meanwhile, check out where you live and order some iodine pills if you are in an at risk area.
*Dr. Stephen Bryen is the former Director of the Defense Technology Security Administration and a fellow of the American Center for Democracy. Some parts of this article are from his new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers).
**In Chernobyl there are no-go areas and also strictly controlled zones. In Fukushima there is a 20km exclusion zone.
***A day after this was written there are reportedly seriously ill people as a result of Hanford contamination.