This week officials from the Tennessee Department of Public Health are knocking on doors of residents within a five-mile radius of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant north of Chattanooga. They're handing out brown-tinted, child-proof bottles of potassium iodide tablets, to be taken in the event of a serious accident at the plant.
Each family is being given one bottle of 14 pills, intended to mitigate the side-effects of radioactive iodine released during a nuclear accident. In an emergency, when escape routes from the area might be too clogged to allow adequate evacuation time, state officials might issue instructions to take the pills.
It's a story that could have been borrowed from the pages of a dime-store novel, coming true for residents of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. But government officials are surprisingly casual about the program.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is paying $7,500 for the first batch of tablets, says the decision does not reflect a lack of confidence in the safety of its nuclear reactors. Calling the move ''a precautionary measure,'' TVA spokesman Carl Crawford says 'there's always a chance'' of a serious nuclear accident, ''but it's very remote.''
Others, within both the nuclear industry and the antinuclear community, question whether the move will have an unintended side-effect: to lull the public into a gradual acceptance of the possibility of a nuclear accident.
''It's meant to assuage the public's fear and lead them into a false sense of security,'' says Nate Thayer of the Clamshell Alliance, an antinuclear lobbying group. ''It's sidestepping the fact that there's no viable protection for people who live near nuclear power plants.''
David Harward of the Atomic Industrial Forum, which represents the nuclear industry, agrees that the pills could be seen as ''a solve-all.''
''There's a real possibility that people won't consider the probability of an accident,'' Mr. Harward says. Nevertheless, he says the decision was a parochial , political one, reflecting ''feelings in a particular area,'' rather than the industry as a whole.
''Personally, I don't think it's needed,'' Harward says. But he adds that Great Britain stockpiles potassium iodide in strategic locations near nuclear power plants.
Despite the short ''shelf life'' of the pills (they may need replacement within two years), the idea may catch on elsewhere. Anne Stringham, of the Tennessee Department of Public Health, says she anticipates the predistribution program will be implemented when the Watts Barr plant in eastern Tennessee is activated.
''It's like an oxygen mask on an airplane - you don't expect to use it, but it's there,'' she says. ''It's not intended to be a substitute for other precautions.'' As a result of recommendations made in the aftermath of the accident at the Three Mile Island plant two-and-a-half years ago, the state of Pennsylvania is also making plans to stockpile the medicine.
Two antinuclear groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Ralph Nader organization, Critical Mass, have been lobbying for the distribution of potassium iodide, not by the government but by the utility companies. The problem of creating a false sense of security near nuclear power plants ''is a genuine concern,'' says UCS staff scientist Gordon Thompson. The drug is ''not a panacea,'' he adds.
Nevertheless, UCS has been trying to persuade the FDA to sell the drug over the counter. Spokeswoman Stringham, of the Tennessee DPH says ''even in the event of accidental consumption of the whole bottle, we don't think any severe problems will occur.''
Emergency planning specialist Richard Udell of Critical Mass says ''the nuclear industry is worried that people will think, 'if you have to take a pill to be safe from a nuclear power plant, it isn't really safe.' ''
That's exactly the position taken by the Clamshell Alliance. ''Handing out pills to protect people from radioactive iodine . . . isn't dealing with the issue of the health and safety of the public,'' says Mr. Thayer. ''The only way to protect the public is to prevent a nuclear accident.''
Frank Ingram, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says the NRC , as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, haven't reached a decision on whether to endorse potassium iodide distribution.