French pharmacies are receiving numerous requests for iodine tablets following Vladimir Putin’s decision to put Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons forces on ‘high alert mode of standby combat duty’ on Sunday.
This order appears to raise the threat of a nuclear attack on the powers supporting Ukraine, but has also been dismissed by some experts as an “intimidation” tactic.
In the event of a nuclear attack, radioactive iodine may be released, and 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.
A pharmacist in Erstein to the south of Strasbourg (Bas-Rhin) told RTL that: “People are starting to talk about [iodine tablets] at the counter, others are phoning us to have them at home as a precaution.
“We are seeing more and more requests. We have made a new order but for the moment we are running out of stock.”
Another pharmacy in Erstein told The Connexion that it currently does not have any iodine tablets available to buy.
The Belgian Pharmacists’ Union has also reported that on Monday 30,000 boxes of iodine tablets were distributed on Monday alone across the country.
Philippe Besset, the president of the Fédération des syndicats pharmaceutiques de France (FSPF) has said that every French pharmacy “can be mobilised by prefects to provide iodine tablets if there is a risk, but at the moment no such operation has been launched.
“We would have the necessary stock if needed,” he added.
The Autorité de sûreté nucléaire told Le Parisien that: “the State has established the supplies and distribution systems which will enable it to protect the population living outside the [20km] perimeter of a nuclear power station.”
Who is entitled to free iodine pills?
Iodine tablets are already routinely distributed for free to the two million people in France who live close to nuclear power stations, such as Ensisheim, which is 16km away from Fessenheim Power Plant in Haut-Rhin (Grand Est).
However, “these people must have official papers proving that they live less than 20km away from one of the 19 power stations,” an Ensisheim pharmacist said. “We have a State supply which we can only give to them.”
What is the risk of a nuclear attack?
As Putin placed Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons forces on ‘high alert mode of standby combat duty’, Belarus’ constitution was also amended to allow the country to host atomic weapons within its territory.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said on Monday that Russia’s escalation was triggered by remarks made by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, but did not explain which comments he was alluding to.
Patricia Lewis, director of the international security programme think-tank Chatham House told the news association PA that: “What we think has happened is that under peacetime, Russia has checks and balances in place so that they can’t launch nuclear weapons.
“So in order to be able to launch nuclear weapons, President Putin has to change the status from peacetime to combat, hence the phrase he’s ‘put his forces on special mode of combat duty’.
“What he seems to have done is created the legal platform to be able to launch if he wishes,” she added.
The US described this as an “unacceptable” escalation, accusing Putin of “fabricating risks which do not exist” and arguing that “at no point has Russia been attacked by NATO or Ukraine.”
NATO also condemned the move, calling Putin’s orders a “dangerous rhetoric.”
However, other experts claim that this is “simply [an] intimidation” tactic, with UK defence secretary Ben Wallace arguing that it constituted “a battle of rhetoric.”
James Acton, who is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank, Tweeted: “It is difficult to know how far Mr Putin’s order to the Russian army will go, and which forces have been alerted.
“The basic idea here is clearly to scare ‘the West’ into backing down. But part [of] the danger here is that it’s not clear to me [that] Putin has a clear de-escalation pathway in mind (except for the capitulation of Ukraine.”
The basic idea here is clearly to scare "the West" into backing down. But part the danger here is that it's not clear to me Putin has a clear de-escalation pathway in mind (except for the capitulation of Ukraine). (8/n)— (((James Acton))) (@james_acton32) February 27, 2022
France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian reminded viewers of TF1 last week that: “Vladimir Putin must also understand that NATO is a nuclear alliance,” meaning that France, the UK and the US all have nuclear weapons at their disposal. “I won’t say any more than that.”