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BOSTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will study distribution policies for a drug to protect against the effects of radiation as part of a review of the implications of Japan's ongoing nuclear disaster, a government spokeswoman said on Tuesday.
The new review would reopen a debate sought by safety activists who have called for a greater stockpile of potassium iodide near U.S. nuclear plants.
Debate over the supply has become politically charged, even as U.S. consumers cleaned out some retailers of their stocks of the medicine in recent days with an eye on Japan's struggles to contain the damage at its Fukushima nuclear plant.
Currently 22 U.S. states have stockpiled or requested the tablets known by their chemical name "KI," to be taken by residents within 10 miles of power plants in an emergency.
Nuclear regulators and nuclear industry groups have resisted calls for stockpiles for people in a wider radius, saying planning is better focused on evacuation measures.
In a statement sent late on Tuesday, Dori Salcido, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the government will study "every aspect" of the disaster unfolding in Japan following Friday's massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, and the government's response to it.
"Policy options relating to KI distribution will be among the issues studied," she wrote.
Salcido did not immediately provide more details. The drug is intended to protect against thyroid cancer by stopping the sensitive gland from absorbing some forms of radiation.
U.S. policy was set by a 2002 law that called for distribution of KI to residents up to 20 miles away from reactors. In 2008, the Bush administration waived that requirement, saying evacuation would be a much better option.
Now critics have renewed the questions, with an eye on the severe quake and tsunami damage to nuclear reactors in Japan. One is Edward Markey, the Massachusetts congressman who wrote the 2002 law.
"We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at, or a terrorist attack on, a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense emergency preparedness measure," Markey said on Monday.
Markey had previously called on President Barack Obama to expand stockpiles, but got a letter back from the White House last summer that let the Bush administration's position stand.
Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the U.S. nuclear industry's trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, said it supports the idea that evacuation is the best option.
"Our view quite strongly is that the science doesn't merit KI distribution beyond 10 miles," he said.
Markey spokeswoman Giselle Barry said his staff estimates U.S. agencies have purchased about 2 million KI tablets in the past decade, plus about 400,000 liquid doses for children. Some will expire soon, however.
The drug -- chemically similar to table salt -- is also sold by some pharmacies; a number of them on the West Coast have sold out in recent days, even as public health officials noted that the drug can be dangerous to people with allergies to shellfish or thyroid problems.
Some online suppliers seemed to be doing no better including Anbex.com, which calls its KI tablets "iOSAT. "As of March 14, 2011, Anbex is out of stock of iOSAT. New product expected by April 18, 2011," its website read on Tuesday.
Reporting by Ross Kerber; editing by Todd Eastham