It’s a busy time, with lots of events calling for our attention; political conventions, police shootings, shootings of police, airport bombings, coup attempts, and a seemingly endless list of similar events. These are all important events, not silly distractions like Pokemon Go. Especially to people directly involved, each one can seem like the most important thing in the world, deserving all our attention right here and right now.
It’s not easy to remember, in the midst of all the flashing lights and sirens, to pay attention to long-term issues that are not yet so immediate. Even so, that’s what we are doing with our “Got KI?” Campaign. That’s because there’s no plan or schedule for a nuclear reactor meltdown. Nobody wants it to happen. Many steps are taken to prevent it happening. And yet it does happen.
When we think of nuclear reactor meltdowns, the two that spring to mind are the complete disasters: Chernobyl, 1986 and Fukushima (3 reactors), 2011. While so far there has been no identical catastrophe requiring permanent evacuation of a large area in the United States, that very nearly did happen at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Three Mile island is not the only instance of a partial meltdown in the USA. The Santa Susana Field Lab reactor had a partial meltdown in California in 1959. This one released about 300 times more radiation than Three Mile Island. The SL-1 research reactor in Idaho exploded in 1961, immediately killing 3 people.
In Michigan, the Fermi 1 reactor (Monroe, right next to the existing Fermi 2 reactor) had its partial meltdown in 1966. This damaged the reactor so severely that attempts to repair and restart were abandoned after several years. The book and the song about this are both called “We Almost Lost Detroit.”
In addition to meltdowns that have permanently wrecked hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment (billions in current dollars), there have been many types of other events causing nuclear power reactors to shut down long before their design lifetimes. A handy list of major failures at nuclear power reactors can be found on Wikipedia.
In normal operation, all nuclear reactors leak some radioactive contamination into the environment. Currently, Turkey Point (near Miami) and Indian Point (upstream of New York) are both leaking radiation into nearby ground and surface water at rates far in excess of what is considered allowable.
In a meltdown, one of the radioactive substances released is a radioactive isotope of iodine. This goes immediately into the air as a gas, and thus radioactive iodine will become the leading edge of the cloud of fallout spreading downwind – whichever way the wind is blowing – from the reactor.
If people living downwind have potassium iodide pills on hand, they can take a pill and protect themselves from the worst effects of breathing in radioactive iodine. And if they do not have it immediately available, in their medicine cabinet, for instance, they can’t protect themselves. When the meltdown is happening, it is too late to run to the drugstore for the right pills.
In a nutshell, the purpose of the “Got KI?” Campaign is to educate people in the Emergency Planning Zone near reactors on the possibilities of a meltdown and to urge the government and the reactor operators to distribute potassium iodide pills effectively. We will be canvassing monthly in selected neighborhoods, starting July 31 in Monroe. To learn more and perhaps to volunteer to join the canvassing, see http://www.athf3.org/gotki/ and http://www.athf3.org/moreki/.
If there is a meltdown, and we are downwind, then having potassium iodide pills on hand will be the most important thing in the world, deserving all our attention right here and right now.