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Energy. Critics of Belgium’s and France’s aging nuclear plants find the distribution of iodine pills laughable.

Belgium distributes iodine tablets to save itself from nuclear disaster

The entire population of Belgium, about 11 million people, will receive iodine tablets, designed to protect the thyroid from radiation in the event of an accident at a nuclear plant (due to breakdowns; the risk of terrorism is not mentioned).

The decision was announced a few days ago by the Minister of Health, Maggie De Block. So far, the iodine tablets, a measure considered negligible by opponents of nuclear power, were distributed only in a radius of 20 km around the nuclear power plants. The minister has responded to the alarm growing around the plants of Tihange and Doel, and the nuclear research facilities of Fleurus and Mol. Iodine tablets will also be distributed at Chooz, France, and Borssele in the Netherlands, towns near the Belgian border, within 100 km from a nuclear power plant.

The alarm around the conditions of Belgium’s nuclear power plants grew when Germany and Luxembourg asked Brussels for the provisional shutdown of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors, where worrying fissures were found. A few weeks ago, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland made similar requests to France. Even in France, iodine pills are distributed around the 19 nuclear power plants (with 58 reactors), but only within a 10 km radius.

The new distribution replaces pills sent in 2009, now expired. This campaign coincides with demands by neighboring countries to close some French plants. Germany has officially asked France to close the Fessenheim power station in Alsace, the oldest in the country, in operation since 1977, and that Hollande had promised to dispose of (he now says it will be closed in 2018, that is, in the next presidency). Berlin accused Paris of downplaying a recent accident. At the same time, Switzerland has lodged a complaint against the Bugey power plant, which is 70 km from Geneva, for ‘endangering the lives of others, and pollution of the waters.” Luxembourg also joined the protests, demanding the closure of the Cattenom plant in Moselle, which does not meet safety rules established after Fukushima (where the #3 reactor ran on MOX fuel, manufactured by France’s Areva).

These European reactions followed statements from Ecology Minister Segolene Royal, who has raised the possibility of extending the life of French nuclear plants by another 10 years, from the current 40. (The U.S. has extended the life of its plants to 60 years, and countries like Sweden and the Netherlands are considering a similar action.)

According to the president of the Nuclear Safety Authority, Pierre-Franck Chevet, French power plants have entered “a very delicate, unprecedented moment.” Chevet states that “most of the 58 French reactors, as well as the Areva [nuclear fuel] sites and the CEA research reactors — that is about 150 installations — were put into service in the 1980s, and they are coming close to 40 years of operation.” If their useful life is extended, they will require renovation and security. This in turn would require substantial investment by the state, but the coffers are empty.

EDF and Areva are controlled by the state. EDF, which manages the nuclear power plants, has provided €50 billion of investment for the modernization of the reactors. Areva must cope with the construction faults detected in the last generation EPR reactor at Flamanville. But the two companies, once the posterchild of France’s energy independence, are in crisis, sinking into deficit and debt. The state has already suspended cash dividends for a few years. It is committed to investing in a capital increase of €4 billion for EDF. To save Areva, which is losing money even during the never-ending construction of an EPR nuclear reactor in Finland, would need at least another €5 billion of public money.

EDF has postponed the decision to invest in Great Britain, where it was about to sign a mega-contract for the construction of two EPRs at Hinkley Point, with a total value of €24 billion. In 2008, EDF acquired British Energy for €15.7 billion. The economy minister, the ambitious (even politically) Emmanuel Macron, was already counting on the signature, but EDF’s CEO, Jean-Bernard Lévy, put the brakes on the deal.

EDF’s financial director resigned, absolutely opposed to the investment in Hinkley Point, as are EDF’s trade unions. “We propose to postpone the project for a few years,” say the EDFs unions, “and to build Hinkley Point’s EPR with an optimized, less expensive design, on which EDF is already working.”