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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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N.Y. Times sends potassium iodide to protect reporters

March 14, 2011 |  9:19 pm

NuclearPlant In journalism, editors with personnel overseas often have to make wrenching decisions about where it's safe for their people to be. The task becomes even more dicey this week in northern Japan, where the prospect of being contaminated with radiation from heavily damaged nuclear reactors has become possible.

As a precaution, the New York Times has obtained a supply of potassium iodide,  a preventative against radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland, for its bureau in Japan.

If, and when, it will be used is not known. "It is a very difficult task to try to understand the level of risk from radiation when the situation is rapidly changing and the information [is] incomplete," said Susan Chira, foreign editor for the New York Times.

Chira said via e-mail that the newspaper had an advantage in trying to assess risk because it had several reporters "who have covered previous nuclear disasters, among them Three Mile Island and Chernobyl." She said the journalists "are drawing on their accumulated wisdom" as well as medical experts to decide how to take adequate precautions.

"Most importantly, we are urging them to stay well away from the zone around the plants so as not to risk contamination at all," Chira continued in her message. "The precautions are simply in case something unexpected happens and there is exposure borne by air or some other unforeseen consequences."

Potassium iodide is a salt that fills up the thyroid gland and prevents it from taking in radioactive material that can cause cancer. Following last week's earthquake and damage to the Japanese nuclear reactors, fears about the spread of radiation have become so great that supplies of potassium iodide reportedly have been running short, even in the  United States. 

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: The damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan, where workers are struggling to prevent the catastrophic release of radiation in the area devastated by a tsunami. Credit: AP Photo / DigitalGlobe