Comment: Iodine supplementation has many benefits beyond just protection against radiation.

toronto nuclear plant
© Toronto Star
Residents and businesses within 10 kms of the the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Generating Stations will receive potassium iodide pills, meant to protect in case of the nuclear disaster.
If you live in Durham Region or Scarborough, you may have just been mailed a package of pills in a calming sky blue box. Those pills are meant to protect you in the event of a nuclear disaster — a disaster that you, living within a sensitive 10km zone surrounding the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Generating Stations, would be on the frontlines of.

"A serious nuclear accident is extremely unlikely," says Ontario Power Generation (OPG) spokesperson Neal Kelly.

"(But) we worked with Toronto Health and Durham Health and we came up with a plan."

200,000 homes and businesses have just received potassium iodide (KI) pills in a $1.5 million OPG-funded project that is being run in conjunction with Durham Region and the City of Toronto. Also known as RadBlock, the pills prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, thus reducing the risk of thyroid cancer in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. As a gas, radioactive iodine can travel quickly and is easily inhaled.

"It's for one thing and one thing only — and that's to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer," Ken Gorman, Durham Region's director of environmental health, says of the pills. The pills are not blanket anti-radiation medication, Gorman adds, and they should only be taken as directed immediately after a radioactive release.

"Radioactive iodine would only be one of the radioactive elements that could be released during an emergency-type situation."

In 2014, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) ordered OPG to distribute the pills for free to everyone living and working within the nuclear plants' 10 km "primary zones" by the end of 2015. In Toronto, that means pretty much everyone who lives east of Morningside Ave. Previously, the pills were available at local pharmacies, but few residents bothered to pick them up.

People who live and work within 50 km of the power plants — the "secondary zones" — are also eligible to order the pills for free from Encompassing almost all of Toronto and Durham Region, as well as swathes of York and Peel Regions, Kawartha Lakes and Peterborough and Northumberland Counties, this area has a combined population of more than 4.5 million people. According to the OPG, roughly 6 million pills have been stockpiled. With an adult dose equaling four pills, that's only enough for 1.5 million people.

For some, these measures are not nearly enough.

Earlier this month, Durham Regional Council passed a motion requesting the province to consider the feasibility of expanding the 10km primary zone.

"These pills should be pre-distributed to everyone within the GTA," adds Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Greenpeace Canada's senior nuclear analyst. "There's no justification behind that 10 km number — it's based on no modelling."

In Japan, Stensil notes, researchers have documented higher rates of thyroid cancer in children who live within 50 km of the doomed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Switzerland, he adds, provides KI pills to everyone living within 50 km of its nuclear facilities.

"For KI to be effective, you need to take it within a few hours of a nuclear accident," Stensil says. "If an accident happens, it's too late to try and order them over the web."

Stensil thinks that our nuclear emergency plans are in dire need of an update.

"Our nuclear emergency plans predate Chernobyl. With 10 reactors in the GTA that's completely reckless... The Ontario government needs to upgrade its nuclear emergency plans, publicly and transparently and it's almost five years since Fukushima and they haven't done it yet."