Exclusive, 18 June 2013
Confusion, secrecy and buck-passing about anti-radiation pills meant to protect tens of thousands against cancers after big nuclear accidents have raised serious questions about Scotland’s plans for keeping its population safe.
Councillors are warning that there may not be sufficient pills available in time, putting people in danger of being poisoned by enough radioactivity to give them thyroid cancer. Young children are the most at risk.
Potassium iodate tablets are an established way of preventing people exposed to radiation from contracting thyroid cancers. They block radioactive iodine released by accidents from contaminating the thyroid gland.
According to the World Health Organisation, the radioactive iodine scattered over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia after the reactor at Chernobyl exploded in 1986 triggered 5,000 thyroid cancers amongst children under 18. They were poisoned by drinking contaminated milk.
Emergency plans for protecting communities around the two nuclear power stations in Scotland - at Torness in East Lothian and at Hunterson in North Ayrshire - include provisions for distributing potassium iodate tablets. But although there are tablets ready for use within two or three kilometres of the plants, it is unclear how populations further away will be protected.
The government’s official guidance says that authorities should be able to distribute the tablets up to 15 kilometres away. There has been growing pressure in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, which caused the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, to extend the zone to 30 kilometres.
The operator of Torness, EDF Energy, says that there are 11,500 tablets in stock that are distributed to the 220 households that live or work within three kilometres of the plant. The plant keeps a further 5,000 tablets for its staff, and gives the local ambulance service 200.
But when councillors on the Torness local liaison committee asked where the tablets were for the people that lived within 30 kilometres, they were referred to the local authority and to the National Health Service (NHS). Dunbar, Haddington, North Berwick and East Linton are all within that distance, and have a combined population of 25,000.
The Edinburgh Green councillor, Chas Booth, asked Lothian NHS about its stocks of potassium iodate tablets, and was told they had none. When I asked Lothian NHS and East Lothian Council, they both responded with a statement from the Scottish government.
“The Scottish government has agreed arrangements for access to potassium iodate tablets as part of the stockpile of pharmaceutical countermeasures held at strategic locations across Scotland to respond to potential incidents,” it said. “These access arrangements are in place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
But when I then asked the government to say how many pills there were, and where they were kept, it refused to say. Because they were stored with a number of other drugs for dealing with a range of incidents and threats “locations cannot be released”, said a government spokeswoman.
Councillor Booth was astonished that authorities had failed to learn the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima. “It is not clear whether there is adequate protection from the effects of radiation for those living outside the three kilometre zone,” he said.
“The public is being asked to ‘trust us’, yet is not being told whether there are sufficient tablets to protect against the effects of radiation, or where those tablets are kept.”
He demanded better protection for the public and transparency from authorities. “With so many authorities passing the buck, it seems the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing,” he added.
Bill Butler, a Glasgow Labour councillor who chairs the group of nuclear-free local authorities group in Scotland, condemned current plans to extend emergency zones to 30 kilometres as “totally inadequate”. This was demonstrated, he argued, by “the confusion over the simple issue of potassium iodate tablets.”
According to EDF Energy, the decision to extend the emergency zone after an accident would be taken by the police, with advice from the health authorities. “It is important to note that although we carefully plan for all eventualities the chances of ever needing such countermeasures within the existing detailed emergency planning zone, three kilometres around Torness, are exceedingly low,” said a company spokesman.