After Russia shelled Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant — the biggest in Europe — early Friday morning, the threat of radiation sickness to citizens is a real and present danger.
“We have survived the night which could stop the history of Ukraine and Europe,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a written update at 10 a.m., adding that attacking the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant “could become as devastating as six Chernobyls.”
With the horrors of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant fire and yearslong emergency still in living memory for many, it didn’t take long for public health advice to arrive.
A video post on independent news site Nexta ran at 2:32 a.m. Ukrainian time explaining when to take iodine tablets to protect against release of radiation.
“You need to take iodine in the first minutes after a nuclear alarm is raised,” said a man issuing the advice.
Pharmacies have already seen a run on iodine tablets across the EU, with countries from Finland to Bulgaria reporting short supplies, according to Reuters, after Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert. Pharmacies in Belgium, which give the tablets out for free, have also seen a rush for pills, reported VRT.
In Ukraine itself, the country has asked the EU for help with almost all medical supplies; “fundamentally … almost anything we can provide,” said Pierre Delsaux, director general of Europe’s Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, earlier this week.
Iodine tablets should be kept safe and not taken unless there is a radioactive emergency, advised Norway’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. Children and adolescents under the age of 18, pregnant and breastfeeding women are most at risk, and should have supplies to hand.
In the event of a nuclear accident, radioactive iodine can be dispersed into the air. Any that is inhaled or ingested is absorbed by the thyroid gland, leading to thyroid cancer. Iodine tablets can block that absorption and reduce the risk of cancer, the authority explains.
These radioactive particles can travel on the wind, so public health advice in the event of a nuclear emergency in Ukraine could depend on the weather, the nuclear safety authority said.
However, iodine tablets only provide protection against radioactive iodine and not against other radioactive substances. In the event of a nuclear emergency, the advice is to stay indoors for up to two days.
Currently, no such advice has been issued. And even if there is a radiation leak, the Zaporizhzhia plant is far more resilient than Chernobyl, said Mark Wenman, reader in nuclear materials at Nuclear Energy Futures, Imperial College London.
The essential reactor components are housed “inside a heavily steel reinforced concrete containment building that can withstand extreme external events, both natural and man-made, such as an aircraft crash or explosions,” he said.
Three of the reactors are shut down, two are being held at low power, while one is running at around 60 percent, reported the International Atomic Energy Agency. And following the shelling and fire, there has been no release of radioactive material, the IAEA said.
But with no sign of let up from Putin’s offensive, the nuclear threat remains — on more than one front.
“Although a missile attack on a nuclear power plant could result in a serious radioactive incident, it is not at as dangerous as a nuclear weapon explosion, which would have far more severe impacts in terms of explosive force, fires, radiation, and radioactive fallout,” wrote Patricia Lewis, director of the international security program at Chatham House think tank.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.