Politics and Science: A Glowing Combination?

by Jerry Mothershead

Definition:  Political science:  [noun] The study of the processes, principles, and structure of government and of political institutions; politics.

Definition:  Risk management: [noun] The process of analyzing exposure to risk and determining how to best handle such exposure.

Politics and science usually mix about as well as oil and water.  Attempts to mix the two are frequently distasteful, and at times can be hazardous.  A recent case illustrates this.

Included in the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 is a provision requiring that the President direct the expansion of the Potassium Iodide (KI) distribution program to include all persons living or working within 20 miles of nuclear-power facilities.  Prior to the passage of the 2002 Act, the KI distribution program included only those persons living or working within 10 miles of such facilities.  The legislation authorized the President or his delegate to waive the new requirement if “an alternative and more effective prophylaxis or preventive measures for adverse thyroid conditions” was available.  In January of this year, Dr. John H. Marburger III, the science advisor to President Bush and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, waived the expansion of the requirement to 20 miles.

His decision was immediately assailed by a number of critics, including several members of Congress. USA Today published an article in which it quoted one member of Congress as calling the decision “… [a] reckless endangerment of the American people." Dr. Marburger’s own assessment and the dissenting comments received from a number of other critics were widely published in the print media. 

Dr. Marburger’s 13-page decision memorandum and the supporting 91-page Technical Evaluation (prepared by the Federal Radiological Emergency Preparedness Coordinating Committee) provide the rationale for his decision.  Following are some of the more important findings (all of which are supported by research or expert opinion):

  • KI is a blocking agent that prevents the uptake and concentration of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland.  Prolonged exposure of that organ to radioactive substances has been linked to the subsequent development of thyroid cancer.  KI does nothing to remove radioactive iodine (or other radioisotopes) from the body and does not prevent harmful effects of radiation (radioactive iodine or other radioisotopes) to the thyroid (or other parts of the body) from isotopes that are outside the thyroid gland.
  • Radioactive iodine is not the only or necessarily the most important hazardous substance that would be released by an American nuclear reactor should an accident occur.  Other substances, such as radioactive noble gases and other particulates, also would be of some concern, but exposure to these substances would not be affected in any fashion by the use of KI.
  • The construction of nuclear reactor facilities in the United States has been carried out with such care that the possibility of extreme release of any radioactive substance would be infinitesimally small, even if the reactor came under a terrorist attack.
  • Plume modeling has demonstrated that even an extreme release from the reactor core would affect only a small portion of the population.  Such modeling is in agreement with the scientific findings developed after the one significant reactor accident that has occurred in the United States.  Over 40 percent of the radioactive iodine and 50 percent of the radioactive cesium in the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor were released into the reactor building in 1979, but environmental analysis indicated that the ingestion of KI by the population surrounding the reactor was not indicated, and environmental levels of these two isotopes were below the thresholds that had been set for any action to be taken.  U.S. reactors are of a totally different design, and have several layers of safety features that were not present in the Soviet-built Chernobyl reactor.  (The extremely harmful consequences of the Chernobyl IV reactor accident are frequently cited by those opposing expansion of nuclear power in the United States.)
  • KI does have some harmful side effects (although these are generally mild); it also has a limited shelf life, and consumes resources that could be used elsewhere as part of the nation’s overall emergency-preparedness and response programs.
  • Use of KI by the general population may reduce willingness to comply with other protective measures directed by authorities in the event of a reactor mishap.

Unfair and Unequal Criticism?

The conclusions of the technical committee, which were supported by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, were that a significant release of radioactive iodine from a U.S. reactor would be an extremely low-probability event in which the actual escape of radioactive material would occur over a long-enough period of time to allow the implementation of better radiation exposure reduction methods – including public notification, shelter-in-place measures, evacuation (if necessary), and the interdiction of contaminated food.

It should be noted that, in addition to the findings and recommendations cited above, Dr. Marburger’s memorandum honestly stated that the technical evaluation did identify certain weaknesses in the existing KI distribution program, and therefore recommended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other responsible government agencies collectively develop “best practice” guidelines for the existing 10-mile program.

In a democracy, everyone is, of course, entitled to his or her opinion. Government leaders, however, have a higher duty to their constituents – namely, to make sound pronouncements based on all of the evidence available. In this case, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy has made what seems to be a reasonable decision – and has provided the scientific and risk-management basis, including some negative factors, for that decision. Nonetheless, his pronouncement has been the subject of considerable criticism in the public press – which is how a democratic society works. The outside critics could and would strengthen their own arguments considerably, though, if they would provide a counterbalancing basis, of approximately equal magnitude, for their opinions. So far, however, it seems that few if any of them have been willing or able to do so.

Dr. Jerry Mothershead is the Physician Advisor to the Medical Readiness and Response Group of Battelle Memorial Institute. An emergency medicine physician, he also is adjunct faculty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, Dr. Mothershead served on active duty in the U.S. Navy in a broad spectrum of clinical, operational, and management positions for over 28 years, and has served in an advisory capacity to numerous local, state, and federal agencies in the fields of antiterrorism, disaster preparedness, and consequence management.