Belgium To Distribute Iodine Tablets In Wake Of Nuclear Meltdown Fears

In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the Belgian government has decided to distribute anti-radiation iodine tablets to the entire population as a precaution against a possible nuclear meltdown.

As part of Belgium's plans for a nuclear emergency, health minister Maggie De Block initially said the distribution of iodine tablets was for residents living in a 20km (12ml) radius of a nuclear reactor, but the government has decided to include people within a 100km (or 60ml) radius, resulting in the entire population of Belgium – some 11 million people – being able to receive the medication.

De Block told Belgian TV, "Every country has updated its plans for a nuclear emergency."

However, while protecting Belgians in the event of a nuclear disaster, the country's neighbors have recently criticized the condition of its ageing nuclear facilities. On April 20, Germany asked the Belgian government to turn off the 40-year-old Tihange 2 and Doel 3 reactors "until the resolution of outstanding security issues."

As reported by the International Business Times in February, Germany pointed out that both nuclear plants have shown defects in their pressure vessels along with metal degradation, fires and safety warnings and the city of Aachen was threatening to sue the Belgian government.

While the reactors had been temporarily closed last year, reportedly they were both restarted in December 2015.

Belgium's official nuclear safety agency AFCN rejected Germany's request, stating that both plants "respond to the strictest possible safety requirements".

Geetha Kayaert, spokeswoman for Electrabel, the operator of the reactors, told Bloomberg, "We have proven that the reactor vessels are safe and it's the result of a very long process of research that has been evaluated and confirmed by experts in Belgium and abroad."

However, according to a report by Gizmodo, the move to supply the country's citizens with the anti-radiation iodine could also be the result of concerns over news that Islamic State terrorists may be planning a dirty bomb attack, following the recent Brussels terror attacks in March.

Back in November last year, Mohammed Bakkali, a Brussels resident, was arrested after he was suspected of being involved in the Paris terror attacks, and Bakkali is believed to be one of the prime figures in a suspected dirty bomb plot. When officials raided the home of the suspected ISIS terrorist, they found hidden camera recordings of a Center for the Study of Nuclear Energy executive in Mol in northern Belgium, who previously worked with radioactive isotopes.

In the meantime, as per the proposal put forward by the Belgian health minister, stocks of iodine pills are to be supplied to pharmacies across the country. Reportedly, in the event of a nuclear emergency, residents will be allowed to take their rations of the pills, with breastfeeding mothers, pregnant woman, and children receiving priority.

According to the Independent, handing out iodine pills is not the solution to the risks of using nuclear power. Molly Scott Cato of the Green Party said, "There are so many other isotopes apart from iodine which come out as well. Stronium-90 sits in your bones, ticking away."

According to Cato, the only solution is to not use nuclear energy as "Nuclear power was never a safe technology."

Meanwhile in Belgium, Jean-Marc Nollet of the green Ecolo Party does welcome the move in supplying the iodine tablets but says the country must also limit its use of nuclear power.

"The government is finally accepting the recommendation of the Health Ministry. Given the population density and the risk of a nuclear disaster, this was absolutely necessary," he said.

However, he went on to add that the only solution is to respect the government's original plan and not extend the lifespan of Doel 1 and Doel 2, along with suspending the restarting of the cracked reactors at Doel 3 and Tihange 2, as requested by neighboring countries and many citizens of Belgium.

Reportedly, in the event of a nuclear disaster, iodine pills help to reduce the radiation build-up in the thyroid gland, the most sensitive part of the body to radiation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[Photo Doel nuclear power plant via Wikimedia Commons by Alexandre Jacquemin/CC BY-SA 3.0]