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France sends iodine tablets to Ukraine amid ‘grave’ nuclear concern

The mineral pills protect against nuclear radiation. It comes amid growing international concern over the safety of the Zaporizhzhia power plant site

A medical bottle spilling pills, one of the pills close up says “IODINE”

France has confirmed it has sent medical aid to Ukraine, including the delivery of iodine pills, which protect against radiation Pic: luchschenF / Shutterstock

France has sent medical iodine to Ukraine in response to “grave concern” around the stability of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which came under Russia control on Friday, March 4.

Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed yesterday evening (Sunday, March 6) that France has sent a variety of medical products, including iodine, to Ukraine, in response to fears over the risk of a nuclear accident during combat with the Russian army.

He told France 2 and 5: “Yes, we have sent a variety of medical products…We have sent much medical equipment [of which] iodine is a part.”

The French ambassador to Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, had already told BFMTV that Ukraine would be in receipt of “2.5 million doses of iodine to guard against nuclear danger.”

Why iodine? 

Iodine tablets help protect against the effects of exposure to radiation.

In the event of a nuclear attack, radioactive iodine may be released. Taking non-radioactive iodine prevents this from accumulating in the thyroid on inhalation of contaminated air, so reducing the risk of developing thyroid cancer. This is known as iodine thyroid blocking.

Even in France, pharmacies reported seeing a rise in requests for the tablets following Mr Putin’s recent decision to put Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons forces on ‘high alert mode of standby combat duty.’

Iodine tablets are routinely distributed for free to the two million people in France who live within 20km of nuclear power stations – such as residents of Ensisheim, which is 16km away from the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in Haut-Rhin (Grand Est).

Read more: War in Ukraine: Rise in iodine tablet requests at French pharmacies

What else is France doing?

President Emmanuel Macron spoke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday evening, to “guarantee nuclear protection,” Mr Le Drian said. The conversation reportedly lasted almost two hours.

Mr Le Drian said: “President Macron took the initiative, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to have seven or eight major points on which the two parties should agree, in order to respect both Ukrainian sovereignty over its own power plants, but also the security of the whole of its territory, and also the whole of Europe.

“I think that President Putin accepted all of these positions. We will see tomorrow [Monday, March 7] because all the governors of the IAEA will meet then.”

Mr Macron said that he was “gravely worried” about the security of Ukraine’s nuclear sites, after Russia began shelling close to the Zaporizhzhia power plant.

In a press statement, the Elysee said: “[Putin] is ready to respect IAEA requirements for the protection of sites”, and agreed “to the opening of dialogue between the IAEA, Ukraine, and Russia, so that the sites are restored to safety”.

Is there a real risk at Zaporizhzhia?

The six-reactor power plant at Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear site in Europe.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Sunday that it was “gravely concerned” about the safety of the site, after it was informed that “any action of plant management – including measures related to the technical operation of the six reactor units – requires prior approval by the Russian commander”.

The IAEA has said that this “contravenes one of the seven indispensable pillars of nuclear safety and security”. The rules state that staff must be able to carry out their safety and security duties and be able to make decisions “free of undue pressure.”

Russia shelled the plant on Friday, causing a fire and damaging part of the building. This caused some of the reactors to be shut down, and some put on low power.

While the reactors themselves are encased in concrete, the IAEA has expressed concern that further action could damage the fuel rods or cooling systems, which could potentially cause a meltdown.

There are also reports that Russia had shut down communications to the plant, which is another contravention of the nuclear safety pillars.

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