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.
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.
“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."
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.
Alastair Jamieson is a London-based reporter, editor and homepage producer for NBC News.