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Belgium issues iodine pills to protect people in case of a nuclear accident

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By Nada Bashir CNN

(CNN) -- Pharmacies across Belgium are being stocked with iodine pills as part of a new government emergency plan to help protect citizens against a potential nuclear accident.

The revised plan, which was issued by the National Crisis Center on Tuesday, sets out a number of safety provisions, focusing in particular on people living within 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) of emergency planning zones surrounding five nuclear sites.

Within these zones, which surround sites at Doel, Tihange, Mol-Dessel, Borssele and Chooz (just over the border in France), residents will receive iodine tablets to protect them against radioactive iodine and prevent thyroid cancer in case of a nuclear accident. Elsewhere, the government is stocking pharmacies with iodine tablets to be made freely available to all, with young people under the age of 18 and pregnant women specifically being encouraged to pick up a pack.

The emergency zone extends 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) around the Fleurus reactor.

The government is also making preparations to swiftly evacuate people living within 10 kilometers of these nuclear sites, as well as encouraging residents to subscribe to the BE-Alert alarm system so they'll get information quickly in case of a nuclear accident.

A representative for the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control told CNN the measures are merely precautional and do not indicate an imminent threat.

"This is simply an updated precautionary plan -- the new emergency plan has not been issued in response to any perceived threats and does not indicate an increase in the risks associated with nuclear power plants in Belgium."

A spokesperson for Health Minister Maggie De Block reiterated that the decision was a precaution. "Iodine tablets are being made available at all pharmacies within Belgium, with the exception of one commune," the spokesperson said. "However, these pills are available to all citizens."

This is not the first time the government has issued precautionary measures to protect against nuclear emergencies within its territory. In 2016, the government revised its 2003 nuclear emergency plan to increase the number of citizens receiving iodine pills.

Issues surrounding Belgium's seven nuclear reactors have raised several concerns, with small cracks and reactor pressure flaws being detected in several plants, and Doel 4 being shut down for more than four months in 2014 because of turbine sabotage.

Neighboring countries have also expressed concern about Belgium's aging nuclear reactors, and in 2017 German authorities made iodine pills available to all people living in the western city of Aachen, which sits some 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) away from Belgium's Tihange nuclear plant.

With continuing debate surrounding a potential life-span extension for some of Belgium's nuclear reactors, the National Crisis Center is commissioning several initiatives to inform citizens and prepare them for a nuclear emergency, including social media campaigns and expert information sessions across the country.

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