Iodine pills and bunkers: Is France ready for nuclear war?

·4-min read

Like many European countries, France has seen an uptick in people seeking out iodine tablets and looking into bomb shelters in the face of fears of a nuclear war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. France says it’s prepared.

French pharmacists have reported an increased demand for iodine tablets from people worried about the possibility of nuclear war with Russia, or an attack on one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants.

The demand in France is not on the same level as in countries closer to Ukraine - pharmacies in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic ran out of iodine pills in March – but it has been enough for pharmacists to take notice and start information campaigns to reassure people that the government has enough stock to quickly deliver tablets to the entire population in the case of a disaster.

And the handful of private bunker constructors in France have also said they have received a record number of orders since the start of the war in Ukraine. France has few bomb shelters, especially compared to its neighbours.

Iodine regulated

The French government tightly controls the sale of iodide tablets, which are produced by the army and one company, Serb, which received authorisation to produce them in 2021.

Potassium iodoine, called stable iodine, is used to help protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine in the air coming from a nuclear explosion.

Taken shortly before, or right after exposure, the tablets can help protect the thyroid and reduce the risk of developing cancer.

Currently, French pharmacies within 20 kilometres of a nuclear power plant are allowed to carry stocks of iodine pills and dispense them to anyone living in the radius, in case of radiation leaks.

The French Radioprotection and safety Institute (IRSN) says that the state has enough stock of tablets to cover the entire population in the case of a wider nuclear accident.

However, the director of the National nuclear safety authority, Olivier Gupta, said in March that it is unlikely that radioactivity from an accident in Ukraine would reach levels in France that would require iodine.

Even as some people try to secure pills – just in case – authorities have warned they should not be taken as a preventative measure, and only under the guidance of public health experts.

Bomb shelters

Unlike some other European countries, France has virtually no bomb shelters for the general population.

There is reportedly a shelter under the Elysée presidential palace and in some submarine bases, as well as some WWII-era bomb shelters still intact.

But France does not have bunker space for its civilians, like Germany or Switzerland, which has space for its entire population.

As a result, people with space and money have been looking into building their own. Bomb shelter companies, who once aimed for the survivalist crowd, are reporting an increase in interest and orders.

“In one month we went from a dozen visits to our site per day to 1,000. And from one request for an estimate to more than 900,” Mathieu Seranne, the director of Artemis Protection, which makes shelters, told Midi Libre.

Bunkle, another constructor, said it received nearly 300 orders and its phone lines were saturated with calls on 25 February, the day after Russia launched its military offensice in Ukraine.

But the demand for bomb shelters remains small on the scale of the population.

Instead of building bunkers, or requiring individuals to build them, France is banking on dissuasion from nuclear war and preventing accidents.

EU plans

The European commission, meanwhile, is encouraging European member states to stockpile iodine pills, protective suits and other medicine to be used in the case of a nuclear accident.

In April, the European Commission said it was ramping up its preparedness and response plan “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear” threats, or CBRN, providing a 540.5 million euro strategic stockpile.

The commission delivered 3 million iodine tablets to Ukraine, with the help of France and Spain, coming from the stockpile.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, which caught many countries unprepared, without enough supplies of masks and protective equipment, or a vaccine, the EU established the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to identify and prepare for future health emergencies.

European lawmakers have since urged HERA to follow developments in Ukraine.

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