NEW YORK — Potassium iodide pills have played a central role in Japan’s nuclear response. And they’ve contributed to widespread paranoia in the United States, as people fearing exposure to radiation from thousands of miles away have snapped up the substance from drugstore shelves and online vendors.
But as a matter of U.S. emergency preparedness policy, the government’s distribution of potassium iodide to people living near nuclear plants is a hazy and voluntary process that varies widely from state to state.
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission included potassium iodide in its emergency preparedness regulations nearly a decade ago, the decision on whether to distribute the radiation pills to the public was left up to individual states. Twenty-three of the 33 states that have people living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants have chosen to participate in the federal program.