As the quake-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was spewing radiation, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan urged the central government to issue iodine tablets to residents in affected areas.
But Tokyo apparently ignored the advice.
Unlike other countries, Japan does not sell iodide tablets over the counter. The government and radiation experts have issued notices stressing the tablets should only be taken in the presence of a doctor.
At least 900 people should have been issued the medication under the NSCJ’s safety standards, but the central government did not issue instructions to municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture to lessen the health risk faced by residents.
Had those people taken the tablets, they would have markedly lowered the absorption of radiation in their thyroid glands following hydrogen explosions at the No. 3 and No. 4 reactor buildings on March 14 and 15, respectively.
Early in the morning of March 13, the day after the explosion at the No. 1 reactor building, the NSCJ said it contacted the central government’s crisis headquarters in Tokyo to suggest that iodine tablets be issued. The NSCJ said it discussed the issue with officials there twice via fax.
Gen Suzuki, a member of an advisory panel at the NSCJ and president of the International University of Health and Welfare, said, “I sent a statement (to the headquarters) a few times saying residents with at least 10,000 cpm of radiation should take iodine tablets.”
Later that same day, the crisis headquarters in Fukushima faxed the NSCJ a draft statement to be issued to municipal governments in the prefecture.
It made no mention of iodine tablets, the NSCJ said.
The NSCJ then repeated its advice to the headquarters in Tokyo.
The draft statement, which the NSCJ later made public, mentions the NSCJ’s advice that (if radiation levels exceed certain levels) “decontaminating the person and making the person take iodine tablets are required.”
“We talked to members of medical and radioactive teams involved in dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear accident, but we haven’t been able to find the faxes (sent by the NSCJ),” said Kenji Matsuoka, a member of the headquarters in Tokyo and chief of the Nuclear Emergency Preparedness Division at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, at a meeting of a task force handling this matter at the NSCJ.
Gen Suzuki, who heads a clinic at the International University of Health and Welfare, told a meeting of the Japanese Association for Medical Management of Radiation Accident (JAMMRA) in Saitama on Aug. 27 that 40 percent of people tested for internal exposure to radiation may have needed iodine tablets. The Japanese government had not instructed any residents to take iodine tablets since the start of the nuclear crisis.
“Reviewing the results of external radiation exposure tests on residents (conducted on March 17 and 18, several days after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake), I believe they should have taken iodine tablets at least once,” he said.
International Potassium Iodide Response vs Japanese Government Response
Various embassies in Japan were passing out potassium iodide tablets as a “precautionary measure” to protect their citizens from radiation exposure in case the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant spiraled even further out of control.
From the early stages of the scare, the French Embassy began handing out tablets to its citizens. Other embassies have followed suit, including the U.K., U.S., Swiss and Swedish missions. While most embassies have specified that iodide tablets do not need to be taken at present and that citizens will be told when it is necessary, the Swedish Embassy is recommending on its website that citizens within 250 km of the Fukushima plant take them once every three days.
An embassy official was unavailable for comment.
“The recommendation by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority that all Swedes who are staying within a radius of 250 km from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant to take iodide tablets every three days is still valid,” the embassy’s website, last updated Saturday, says. “Best protection against radioactive iodine is to take iodide tablets before the exposure, as doing so afterward will prove too late.”
According to the British Embassy, it had handed out about 1,500 doses to British citizens in Sendai, Niigata and Tokyo.
“We make it very very clear that we are giving these medicines out as a precaution,” the official said.
The Japanese government, on the other hand, was only dispensing iodide tablets to people in the 20-km evacuation zone near the plant.
An official at the health ministry said the tablets were unnecessary for “Tokyoites” and said the only people who have been instructed to take them are those who have evacuated from the 20-km hot zone.
“In Tokyo, for example, the level of radiation is not even close to a scenario when those tablets would be necessary,” the official said.
“I guess the embassies are taking extra precautions and distributing the tablets from the viewpoint of protecting their citizens,” he figured.
Yoshio Hosoi, professor of Hiroshima University, said exposure to shorter-lived iodines should be taken into account.
“Even iodine-132, which has a half-life of only two hours, needs to be considered (as a substance to be measured),” Hosoi said.
According to a March 16 analysis on the air outside a 30-kilometer radius of the plant, radioactive iodine-132 and substances that would turn into iodine-132 in about three days accounted for at least 70 percent of airborne radiation.
The analysis was conducted by RIKEN, an independent administrative institution on scientific research, and other organizations.
The central government’s panel tasked with assessing the accident at the Fukushima plant is expected to investigate the matter.
According to the prefectural government, of about 230,000 residents who underwent radiation checks at health care and evacuation centers in the prefecture since March 13, some 900 people showed readings of at least 13,000 cpm of radiation.
The 900 figure was mostly based on results made available Oct. 20.