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Disaster-ready Swiss rethink iodine handouts as nuclear plant offline

FILE PHOTO: Swiss energy company BKW's Muehleberg nuclear power plant and the Aare river are seen in Muehleberg

ZURICH (Reuters) – The closure of a nuclear power plant near Bern in Switzerland is disrupting more than energy supplies: it has also led to a rethink of how the nation doles out iodine tablets for people to swallow in the event of an atomic catastrophe.

For years, the country at 10-year intervals has handed out potassium iodide tablets to residents within 50 kilometres (31.07 miles) of the nuclear stations that historically have accounted for a quarter of Swiss energy production.

Businesses also get a separate supply.

Now the country has shuttered its 355-megawatt Muehleberg power station near Bern and is dismantling the reactor that operated from 1972 to 2019, the next round of tablets due to be handed out come 2024 – the old ones are due to expire then – must be reconfigured.

In 2014, the last time Switzerland handed out iodine, it gave tablets to nearly 5 million people in 1.9 million households, in 1,350 communities.

The government did not immediately say if fewer tablets would be going out the next time, as Muehleberg will be offline. The Swiss population has grown, from about 8.1 million in 2014, to 8.6 million, so that could make up the difference.

The government said on Wednesday the upcoming distribution will cost 15 million Swiss francs ($16.31 million), with operators of Switzerland’s remaining three nuclear power stations – Beznau, Goesgen and Leibstadt, all located not far from the German and French borders – paying 11 million francs of the total cost.

Switzerland also swaps out iodine pills it separately gives to cantons outside the 50 km radius every decade for emergency distribution, with that last exchange in 2020.

Potassium iodide helps protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine that might be released in a radiation emergency.

Such deliveries are normal, with U.S. states, including Delaware, also distributing tablets to residents within 10 miles of plants. France handed out free tablets to 2.2 million people two years ago.

($1 = 0.9196 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by John Miller; editing by Barbara Lewis)

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