Dutch govt. distributes iodine tablets in provinces near nuclear plants

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The Doel Nuclear Power Station in Beveren, Belgium. Across the Schelde River is a BASF facility that leads to the Dutch border. January 23, 2012 (photo: Alexandre Jacquemin / Wikimedia). The Doel Nuclear Power Station in Beveren, Belgium. Across the Schelde River is a BASF facility that leads to the Dutch border. January 23, 2012 (photo: Alexandre Jacquemin / Wikimedia)

From this week the Dutch Ministry of Public Health is distributing iodine tablets in provinces located near nuclear plants. The pills are intended to protect against a certain type of radiation should there be a nuclear disaster. According to the Ministry, around 3 million people in large parts of the regions of Oost-Nederland, Noord-Nederland, Noord-Brabant, Zuid-Holland, Zeeland and Limburg will receive a packet of pills in the mail by the end of next week, the Volkskrant reports.

Iodine pills wil be sent to all children under the age of 18 who live within 100 kilometers of a nuclear plant. Within a radius of 20 kilometers from a plant, all people up to the age of 40 will get a packet of pills. Pregnant women can buy them from a pharmacy. If a nearby nuclear plant leaks radioactive material for any reason, the people living around it will receive a notification telling them to drink the iodine tablets.

The pills are intended to protect against a form of thyroid cancer, to which young people are particularly vulnerable during a nuclear disaster. The cancer develops when the thyroid gland absorbs radioactive iodine. By drinking the iodine tablets first, the thyroid absorbs all the iodine it can from the tablets and has no more room for radioactive iodine. Any iodine absorbed from the nuclear cloud will simply pass through the body. 

While there are international guidelines for distributing iodine tablets around nuclear plants, each EU country can decide for itself how and whether they distribute the tablets. A few years ago Belgium decided to distribute iodine due to citizens' concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants Doel and Tihange. In 2014, the Dutch government decided to "harmonize" the policy so that Dutch citizens can have the same protection as German and Belgian people living near nuclear power plants, according to the newspaper. This measure is taken as a precaution, and not in response to a threat of nuclear disaster.

These tablets also don't eliminate all risks of nuclear disaster. Other radioactive substances, like cessium or plutonium, can be released in a nuclear disaster, and the iodine tablets will do nothing against that.

According to Wim Turkenburg, atomic physicist and energy professor at Utrecht University, the best thing to do after a nuclear disaster is to stay inside until the nuclear cloud dissipated. "Don't go get your children from school, but leave them there", he said to the Volkskrant. He also stressed that nuclear disasters are very rare, especially in the reactors located close to the Netherlands. "The nuclear plants here are more striclty checked than in Fukushima and Chernobyl."

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