Iodine tablets, air-raid shelters… Is France ready for a major nuclear crisis?

The war unleashed by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine has raised the specter of nuclear catastrophe. On the day of the launch of its offensive, February 24, the Russian military took control of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the most horrific nuclear accident in history, in 1986. “No immediate danger” nevertheless, according to Karine Herviou, deputy director general of the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN). A few days later, the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, was attacked, sparking a fire that was the worst. According to the Ukrainian camp, a laboratory and a training building were hit by Russian artillery on the night of 3 to 4 March. However, no radioactive leak was discovered and the six reactors were not damaged.

The statements of the autocratic Russian president are also unlikely to allay the concerns. The Kremlin captain ordered on February 27 to put the deterrent troops of the Russian army on special combat alerts. In launching the invasion of Ukraine, he also warned those: “who would try to intervene” with Russian troops “that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead to consequences never before known”† A thinly veiled allusion to nuclear weapons. For the first time, there is an armed conflict involving a nuclear power in a country equipped with nuclear power plants to produce electricity. The fear of an accident grows. Is France ready?

1In an accident at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant

This is the first scenario. In this scenario, the reactors of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant are hit during the fighting, causing a major nuclear accident. In this situation, in France, it is the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) that will advise the public authorities. An interdepartmental crisis center (CIC) will be established. It will be administered by the Prime Minister, in association with the President of the Republic. The organization of this French response is foreseen in the National Plan for Response to a Major Nuclear or Radiological Accident, developed after the Fukushima disaster (Japan) in 2011.

“If the nuclear accident occurs abroad, we have time to see it coming.”

Christophe Quintin, Chief Inspector at ASN

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“We will follow the cloud [radioactif] containing the particles with the calculations made by the IRSN. Decisions are made based on that.” by government agencies, adds the Chief Inspector of the Nuclear Safety Authority.

“It is the state that is responsible for crisis management, but the government relies heavily on experts”, explains Valérie Arnhold, policy and risk management expert at EMLYon Business School and associate researcher at Sciences Po Paris. The distribution of iodine tablets, which should prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing the radioactive iodine released into the environment, will therefore follow the recommendations of the ASN, which is based on reference values ​​​​defined in the Public Health Code (Article D. 1333-84). It should intervene once thyroid exposure predictions exceed 50 millisieverts (mSv), which is equivalent to the instrument for measuring radiation on living matter. Fifty mSv represents 15 times the dose that the French population receives per year.

This distribution would be organized by the Orsec iodine plans drawn up by the prefects, which would allow emergency distribution to the entire population. While France announced on March 6 that it “various medical products” in support of Ukraine, including stable iodine, the state of the national stockpile arises. The Directorate-General for Health assures us: there is nothing wrong on that side.

“If the situation requires it, state stocks would allow distribution of tablets to the entire population.”

The Directorate-General for Health

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In France, the reception and evacuation of the population, although provided for in the national plan, is unlikely to apply. A shelter is activated when the population exposure forecast exceeds 10 mSv for the whole body. For theevacuation, it is from 50 mSv. In case of’nuclear accident abroad, “we will never have a level of radioactivity that is necessary to protect the population in France”, guarantees the chief inspector at the ASN.

In the event of a nuclear accident abroad, the ASN would also be responsible for formulating recommendations regarding food consumption. For example, during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it would have been necessary to limit the consumption of milk in certain parts of France. All these measures will have to be applied in cooperation with other countries, to avoid the reproduction of the cacophony at work during Chernobyl. “In an incident in a war zone such as in Ukraine, the mechanisms of international cooperation are defeated”however, says researcher Valérie Arnhold.

2In the event of a nuclear bombardment

Second scenario, the most dramatic: a nuclear attack. The consequences for France would be much more serious than a civil nuclear accident, according to Jean-Marie Collin, expert and spokesperson for Ican France (International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons). “It’s different, both in the blast and in the psychological impact on the population.” The location of the blast would be one of the variables that would determine the level of severity for France, he adds. “A series of disasters can follow one another with nearby Seveso-like businesses, an impossibility to treat the population…”

The health consequences of a nuclear bombardment in Europe would also be different. “The temperature that the bomb reaches will cause the particles to rise to 10,000 meters above sea level, it will then take several days, even several weeks for them to fall. The affected area will be larger than during a nuclear accident, but in a less focused”explains Roland Desbordes, spokesman for Criirad, an independent association founded in 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster to control radioactivity in the environment.

Another bad news in the scenario of such an attack: France does not have the capacity to intercept nuclear missiles. “The coupling of thermonuclear explosives to intercontinental ballistic missiles, which took place in the early 1960s, caused a near impossibility to intercept the missile once launched. The hypersonic missiles that Russia possesses today continue this dynamic.”, explains Benoît Pelopidas, professor at Sciences Po, founder of the first independent university research program on nuclear issues in France. Same story for France’s allies, who were also unable to stop the attack.

“The grossly inadequate performance of US ballistic missile defense systems in testing rules out the possibility of intercept protection in the event of a massive attack.”

Benoît Pelopidas, professor at Sciences Po

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Unable to stop a nuclear offensive, would France still be ready to face it? The question is much more complex than in a nuclear accident.

“The French state is supposed to respond with its nuclear missiles. We then enter a system that is unimaginable, so nothing is planned for the population.”, says Jean-Marie Collin, expert and spokesperson for Ican France. An unthinkable emanating from the national nuclear deterrent strategy. “In France, the political and military elites have bet on nuclear deterrence, which is a gamble on vulnerability. In summary, according to this logic, it is no longer necessary to protect populationsadds Benoît Pelopidas, author of the book Rethinking Nuclear Choices (Sciences Po Press, 2022). This is why nuclear deterrence is a gamble on the absence of an unwanted nuclear explosion.”

It is for the same reason that in the event of a threat of nuclear bombing, France would not be able to place its population in anti-atomic shelters. France has only a few hundred, out of a population of 67.4 million. In comparison, Switzerland (with a population of 8.5 million) has built 360,000 shelters, making for about 9 million protected places for the population, ie a coverage of more than 100%, according to figures from the Federal Office of Civil Protection (OFPP). The country had built massive bunkers during the Cold War. But in the event of a global nuclear conflict, the relevance of this equipment must be put into perspective. Fallout shelters would only be profitable if the number of weapons launched remains relatively low.

“In light of something other than a very small number of explosions, these shelters have been shown to be an illusion of protection.”

Benoît Pelopidas, professor at Sciences Po

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“As early as the 1950s, an SNPC report [Service national de Protection civile] determined that fifteen thermonuclear bombs would be enough to destroy France”details Benoit Pelopidas.

Finally, France must be attacked directly to make the bomb shelter useful. In an attack from another country in Europe, a shelter would not help much against the nuclear cloud. More generally this isIn the event of a nuclear crisis on the continent, following an accident in a power plant or due to the explosion of missiles, certain consequences remain difficult to foresee, despite the national crisis management policy. “No preparation protects against the possibility of very significant health and environmental consequences in the event of a nuclear accident”remembers Valerie Arnhold.