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Belgium Issues Iodine Pills to All Citizens in Nuclear Emergency Plan

Belgium is to issue iodine tablets to its entire population, months after ISIS bombers spied on a nuclear scientist and hoped to build a "dirty bomb.”
Image: Nuclear power plant in Tihange, Belgium
Belgium's Tihange nuclear plant as seen from a nearby cemetery.JULIEN WARNAND / EPA, file

Belgium is to issue iodine tablets to its entire population as part of a revised nuclear emergency plan, a measure unveiled just months after it emerged that ISIS-linked bombers spied on a top scientist and hoped to build a "dirty bomb.”

A dose of iodine, which helps to limit the effects of radiation on the body, will be made available to all 11 million people in the small country, Health Minister Maggie De Block told reporters Thursday.

The move, which has yet to be finalized by officials, was triggered by a review of emergency plans initiated in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, De Block said.

However, it also follows the discovery in that a senior researcher at a Belgian center which produces a significant portion of the world's supply of radioisotopes had been spied upon by a terror cell.

Secret film of the scientist was found Nov. 30 during a raid on the home of Mohamed Bakkali, an ISIS-linked suspect who has since been charged with involvement in the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

Last month it emerged the film was recorded by brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who were among the bombers responsible for the March terror attacks in Brussels.

There have also been concerns at the security of Belgium’s creaking nuclear energy plants, including two 40-year-old reactors.

Many foreign governments — and some states, including California and New York — issue iodine tablets, which work by filling the thyroid gland and preventing the absorption of radioactive iodide.

Belgium had originally planned to issue the tablets to people living near its Tihange and Doel nuclear plants but will now widen the distribution area so that the whole country is included. Belgium covers an area of 12,000 square miles — roughly the size of Maryland.

Image: Nuclear power plant in Tihange, Belgium
Belgium's Tihange nuclear plant as seen from a nearby cemetery.JULIEN WARNAND / EPA, file

“Before, the iodine pills were only been given to people living in a perimeter of [14 miles] — now we are going to take measures for people within [62 miles],” De Block said. “We will provide iodine pills in the whole country."

She added: “It is not linked with the safety of our nuclear plants. The recommendation came after Fukushima … because obviously after Fukushima, we have more information regarding nuclear risks."

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Although other countries have taken similar measures, experts are divided on its effectiveness.

The substance in the tablets, Potassium iodide, can’t protect the body from other radioactive elements and can cause side effects including gastro-intestinal upset, allergic reactions, rashes, and inflammation of the salivary glands, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the distribution of iodine pills should be “considered” by individual states rather than “required,” according to Canada’s Nuclear Safety Commission.

Some countries, such as France and Sweden, pre-distribute iodine pills while others, such as Germany, stockpile them tablets at certain locations to be distributed in the event of an emergency.