STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
There are certain businesses that thrive on fear. When the Weather Service warns of a hurricane, there's a run on plywood and bottled water. A crime spree can send people to the gun store. And when North Korea starts making noise about its nuclear program, the orders pour in to a Web site in North Carolina.
From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Julie Rose reports.
JULIE ROSE: Just the name nukepills.com might raise an eyebrow. Sounds like a site for conspiracy theorists. But Troy Jones says most of his customers are actually...
TROY JONES: Prudent people who recognize a product that in this day and age, they should probably have in the emergency kit.
ROSE: The product is nukepills, officially known as potassium iodide. It's an FDA-approved drug that blocks the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine released in a nuclear incident. The federal government stockpiles it. Local governments give it to people who live near nuclear plants.
Troy Jones first learned about it in the newspaper when he moved to the Charlotte area in 1999. There's a nuclear plant just a few miles from his house.
JONES: There was one paragraph about this tiny white pill they said might save your life one day. And Y2K was coming, so that piqued my interest, and that's when I got into it.
ROSE: Jones couldn't find the pills at the pharmacy. So he called the manufacturer and started buying in bulk, thinking he'd get rich off the Y2K panic. That didn't amount to much, but 9/11 did.
Today, Troy Jones buys more potassium iodide from the manufacturers than nearly anyone else in the world next to the federal government. He pays about 35 cents a pill and resells it online for twice that. Google potassium iodide and nukepills.com is always near the top.
JONES: Typically, I'm three, four, five, and now I see the NRC jumped ahead of me. Well, we just can't have that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROSE: Although they are the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, right, the government?
JONES: Yeah. But here's the thing. You cannot find any information on their site that you can't find from mine. And if you call them up and ask them a question about potassium iodide, good luck.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
Unidentified Man: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
ROSE: Hi. I'm actually calling to see if somebody can tell me if I need potassium iodide tablets, and if so, where I should get them?
Unidentified Operator: Hold on, please.
ROSE: He transfers me to the Public Information Office, which refers me to my local health department, which sends me here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
Unidentified Woman: Okay. These are due on Tuesday.
ROSE: This public library is one of several locations where people can get free potassium iodide pills in the Charlotte area, but only if you live within 10 miles of the two nuclear plants. If you don't, county preparedness coordinator Bobby Kennedy says you should have plenty of time to evacuate and probably don't need the pills. If you still want some he says...
BOBBY KENNEDY: It's available on the Internet. It's not a prescribed drug.
ROSE: Which leads me right back to Troy Jones and nukepills.com.
JONES: And I have a stack of orders I just printed overnight. Here they are.
ROSE: Jones is a one-man operation. He spends about two hours a day packing orders. He won't say how much he's making, but it's clearly enough to keep him comfortable. About 80 percent of his orders are from individuals. The rest come from government agencies, hospitals and power companies like Duke Energy, which buys the pills for workers at its nuclear plants. Although...
VALERIE PATTERSON: We have not had to have any of our staff take it at any of our facilities.
ROSE: That's Duke Energy spokeswoman Valerie Patterson.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says there's never been an emergency in the U.S. that required the use of potassium iodide. Many health agencies say the pills probably helped prevent millions of children in Poland from getting thyroid cancer after Chernobyl.
More recently, nuclear concerns in the Middle East have been good for nukepills.com. Earlier this year, Jones brokered a $1 million deal with the Ministry of Health in Kuwait.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.