Iodine pills for all: Nuclear plant security worries prompt new Belgium health plan

© Vincent Kessler
Belgian officials have grown so worried about the country’s nuclear power plants that the government has been advised to let everyone living within a 100-kilometer radius of the plants be issued with iodine pills. This is basically the entire population.

The recommendation was made by Health Minister Maggie De Block, who said the current legislation, which gives iodine pills to Belgians within a 20-kilometer radius, is inadequate and should be extended to 100 kilometers, according to La Libre daily.

De Block mentioned that the whole of Belgium is located within 100 kilometers of a nuclear power plant and therefore the tablets should be made available to everyone. 

In a separate move, in March, the Dutch government decided it would give iodine tablets to people under the age of 18 and pregnant women living in a 100-kilometer radius of a nuclear power plant, the Dutch broadcast NOS reported. 

In case of a nuclear disaster, the iodine tablets can help to alleviate the effects of Iodine-131, which is one of the most harmful radioactive elements that can be released, despite it having a half-life of just eight days. 

Iodine-131 caused around 5,000 deaths from thyroid cancer following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. 

Jean-Marc Nollet, a Belgian politician from the Ecolo Party, which focuses on introducing green policies, is supportive of the move, but also adds that it is not enough. 

“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, as cited by La Libre.

“The only solution is to respect the original plan and not extend the lifespan of Doel 1 and Doel 2 [nuclear power plants] and suspend the restarting of the cracked reactors at Doel 3 and Tihange 2, which has been requested by Germany, Luxembourg and many ordinary citizens,” Nollet added. 

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks urged Belgium on April 20 to take its Tihange 2 and Doel 3 reactors offline “until open safety questions are cleared up.” German officials have expressed concerns over the safety of the reactor pressure vessels. 

Taking the reactors offline “would be a strong precautionary signal and would show that Belgium takes the concerns of its German neighbors seriously,” Hendricks said in a statement. 

The operator of the reactors, Electrabel – the Belgian unit of Engie –said it was surprised by the request. 

“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...” Electrabel spokeswoman Geetha Kayaert told Bloomberg. 

In March, 30 major cities in three EU countries came together to try and force the Belgian government to shut down the Tihange 2 and Doel 3 reactors, which are responsible for producing about 60 percent of Belgium’s electricity. 

The city of Aachen even threatened to sue the Tihange plant due to the safety risk that it posed. Tihange is around 70 kilometers away from the German city.

The two reactors at Tihange and Doel were taken offline in 2012 after defects were found in the walls of the reactors' pressure vessels. AFCN cleared their re-start in November, saying the cracks were hydrogen flakes trapped in the walls of the reactor tank and had no major impact on safety. 

Also in March, the newspaper Dernier Heure reported that the Brussels suicide bombers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were planning attacks on Belgian nuclear power stations. The brothers planted a hidden camera in front of the home of the director of the Belgian nuclear research program, the paper said. 

Shortly after the fatal Brussels attacks, personnel from Belgium’s two nuclear power stations in Doel and Tihange were evacuated, while soldiers were placed on site to beef up security.