Radiation pills lined up for residents

ANTI-RADIATION pills could be distributed to homes in the Sizewell area for the first time since the arrival of nuclear energy in the coastal hamlet more than 35 years ago.

By David Green

ANTI-RADIATION pills could be distributed to homes in the Sizewell area for the first time since the arrival of nuclear energy in the coastal hamlet more than 35 years ago.

Emergency planning officers are poised to give the go-ahead to pre-supply of the pills in the light of new guidance from the Department of Health and research issued last year by the UK radiation watchdog, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).

But a decision will not be taken before September when full details of the new guidance are expected to be available.

The pills flood the thyroid gland with potassium iodate to prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine, one of the biggest threats to health following any major release of radioactivity from the Sizewell nuclear power stations.

Until now Suffolk emergency planning officers have shied away from the idea of pre-distributing the pills, arguing it was best to deliver them to homes and workplaces at the time of an emergency to try to ensure everyone had a supply.

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The need to take the pills would depend on the direction of the wind-blown radioactive cloud and the level of radiation it contained.

Emergency planning officers have pointed to possible problems of people losing the medication and using out-of-date supplies. But two UK nuclear sites have already opted for pre-distribution and that is also the trend in other countries.

A major emergency exercise held at the Bradwell nuclear power station in Essex earlier this month – a postulated accident involving a plane crashing on to one of the twin reactors – included distribution of the pills.

Current emergency plans involve the distribution of pills to people living or working within a one-and-a-half-mile radius of Sizewell and other nuclear sites – less than 200 people in most cases.

But the September 11 terrorist attack on New York has forced emergency planning officers to consider the prospect of having to distribute the pills over a much wider radius near nuclear plants, areas inhabited by thousands of people.

That would take much longer and, with pressure on emergency personnel in the aftermath of an accident, pre-distribution of the pills could now be considered preferable – at least in the immediate area of nuclear plants.

Suffolk emergency planning officer Jeff Stacey said new guidance was expected from the Department of Health that took into account the latest NRPB research on the radiation levels that should trigger the taking of the pills.

"They have been focussing research on the risk to children and unborn babies, the most vulnerable targets. Most people following a reasonable diet are not at great risk because their thyroid would already be protected," he added.

Mr Stacey said he could not speculate whether a go-ahead would be given to pre-distribute pills in the Sizewell area and added: "We must await the new guidance, but I can say that the trend seems to be towards pre-distribution."

Charles Barnett, chairman of the Shut Down Sizewell Campaign, welcomed the prospect of the pre-distribution of anti-radiation pills.

"We have been urging this for years, but the area of distribution should be large than just the immediate surroundings of the nuclear site," he added.