BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

28 October 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

BBC Homepage
Inside Out
East Midlands
North East
North West
South East
South West
West Midlands
Yorks & Lincs
Go to BBC1 programmes page (image: BBC1 logo)

Contact Us

 Inside Out - East: Monday June 2, 2003


Potassium Iodate tablets
Potassium iodate will not be given to everyone

A radioactive leak can have devastating results but one small pill could protect you.

Inside Out exclusively reveals how for the first time these life saving tablets will be available to families living close to the Sizewell nuclear power station.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, nuclear power stations have become plausible targets for terrorists. A radiation leak can have devastating effects.

The Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk is the focus of controversy as a pill which can protect against some radiation is made available for the first time.

This summer, for the first time, families living within 2.4km of Sizewell will be given potassium iodate to store at home as a precaution against radiation leaks.

The tablets are being paid for by Sizewell Nuclear Power Plant and will be distributed by Suffolk coastal District Council.

This is little comfort to those living in Ipswich and Cambridge who depending on weather conditions, could also be affected.

Sizewell power station from above
Those living within a 2.4km distance of Sizewell will receive the tablets

Silent killer

It is believed that the plume of invisible, odourless, tasteless radiation could travel to surrounding areas and even as far as London, depending on weather conditions.

But for these families, potassium iodate is not easily available in advance.

A radiation leak is said to cause a number of life threatening conditions including cancer, tumours and birth defects.

If taken within two hours the potassium iodate tablets protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radioactive iodine.

Emergency planning

Inside Out presenter David Whiteley gained exclusive access to a top security emergency planning meeting at Sizewell to find out more.

According to the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the tablets will only be necessary for those living in close proximity to the plant.


Potassium Iodate tablets protect against 4 or 5 of the many types of radioactive materials known as radionucleids present in a nuclear reactor.

Potassium Iodate specifically protects against those containing a substance called Iodine 131.

They do this by flooding the thyroid gland with iodine, which, if not fully topped would otherwise absorb harmful radionucleids instead. These enter the thyroid via inhalation and can cause thyroid cancer, tumours and birth defects.

Children, pregnant and nursing women are most at risk.

The types of radiation the potassium iodate tablets can afford protection from would comprise about 60% of the release in the first two or three hours after an 'incident'.

Mary Morrey of the NRPB and a representative of Sizewell explains.

"The health and safety executive works with engineers at the power station to work out what accidents might happen and where different levels of exposure to radioactive iodine might occur."

"They have decided on this 2.4km," continues Mary "and believe that beyond this distance, the sorts of doses that the NRPB recommend tablets should be provided for would not happen."

Others disagree.

"It is meaningless nonsense to actually put a limit of 2.4km on," says John Large, a Nuclear Consultant.

"It depends on the scale of the incident, the scale of the radioactive release, then more so the weather conditions," continues John.

"These tablets may be required up to 50 to 100km."

Over the counter

Potassium iodate is classed as a 'pharmacy only medication', meaning chemists are legally permitted to obtain the tablets for the public.

This is some comfort although Dr Amanda Jones warns that many chemists would not ordinarily have them in stock.

Computer demonstration of radiation spreading throughout the East of England
John Large believes that potassium iodate may be needed by people living up to 100km away

The situation should improve as news of the tablets availability spreads to chemists, but the issue of distribution is still to be addressed.


Those living within 2.4km of Sizewell will already have access to the tablets by summer 2003.

Those outside the area will have to await distribution from the emergency services.

John Large remains sceptical.

"If you had a major incident at Sizewell then the potential for release would be so great that the local emergency services just couldn't service it."

The future for mass distribution of potassium iodine remains uncertain. But with worried residents living outside of the 2.4km catchement, the battle for pre-distribution looks set to continue.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
BBC: Inside Out - Porton Down

BBC: News - Safety fears of nuclear plant attack
BBC: News - Anti-radiation pill supply increased

On the rest of the web
British Nuclear Fuels
UK Resilience - Contingency planning

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Inside Out Archive

Inside Out: East
View our story archive to see articles from previous series.

BBC Where I Live

Find local news, entertainment, debate and more ...

Beds, Herts & Bucks

Meet your
Inside Out
David Whiteley

David Whiteley
your local Inside Out presenter.

Contact us
Contact the East team with the issues that affect you.

Free email updates

Keep in touch and receive your free and informative Inside Out updates.


Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Glenn Hawkins
Let us not pretend here, there IS the possibility of a terrorist attack and we should be acting NOW for all those in the Anglian region, and not pussy-footing about....ACT NOW and due our duty to our people. Let us not delay and regret not acting sooner.

Roger Palmer
I feel that these tablets should be made available to everyone living in East Anglia, not just within the 2.4k range of Sizewell.

Inside Out East
In reply to Yvonne Currington, I can only answer in terms of the tablets that we reported on.

At the moment there are no plans to predistribute pottasium iodate tablets to any one living outside 2.4km of Sizewell Power Station . But we understand that you are now able to order them from pharmacists.

Yvonne Currington
We have two weeks holiday every year near sizewell. How will this effect us if there was a leak while we were there?