Belgium: Reactor restarts and lifespan extensions but 2025 phase-out law remains

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Eloi Glorieux − Senior Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace Belgium.

FANC, the Belgian nuclear regulator, recently took two far-reaching decisions. On September 30, FANC accepted the Long Term Operation Action Plan for the two oldest reactors at the Doel nuclear power plant, paving the way for a 10 year lifetime extension.

And on November 17, FANC approved the Safety Case report of Electrabel/Engie. According to FANC, the nuclear operator sufficiently demonstrated that the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors can restart safely. Both reactors have been shut down since March 2014. In the summer of 2012 thousands of cracks were discovered in the reactor vessels.

Lifetime extension Doel 1 and 2

The decision to extend the lifespan of Doel 1 and 2 − the two 40 year old pressurized water reactors (PWR) − was taken in July after long debates in the parliament. The main justification used by Energy Minister Marghem was security of supply. Shortly after the vote in the parliament, this argument was refuted by the federal energy regulator, CREG, and the national grid operator, Elia. Both declared that the security of supply would not be endangered when both reactors were to be decommissioned in 2015.

At the end of September FANC approved Electrabel's LTO Action Plan, which was the last obstacle for plex (lifespan extension). Very remarkable is that several important safety requirements first imposed by FANC as a condition for lifetime extension have been watered down or even disappeared completely from the final action plan. In its original LTO Strategy Note of 2009, the Scientific Council of FANC urged that old reactors were upgraded to the safety level of the newest generation of PWR's, i.e. the EPR. The final LTO Action Plan for Doel 1&2, approved by FANC, urges not more than the safety level of the "most recent Belgian reactors", i.e. the safety level of PWRs from 1985.

The Belgian Stress Tests Action Plan, incorporated in the LTO-revision, also urged the replacement of the reactor pressure vessel heads of Doel 1&2. The approved LTO Action Plan now only asks that the necessity to replace the heads would be examined.

Also the installation of filtered ventilation systems on the reactor buildings of both units was identified as a necessary improvement action for plex. FANC now accepts that these important safety actions are implemented only within five years.

It became clear that when necessary actions to upgrade the safety of the old reactors were considered to be too expensive for the operator or would endanger the lifetime extension as such, they were weakened or postponed in time.

Doel 1 and 2 and Tihange 1 challenged in court

The decisions to extend the lifetime of Doel 1&2, but also of Tihange 1 (decision taken already in December 2013) were taken without a preceding environmental impact assessment and cross-border public consultation process, as required by the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions and the European Directives.

Greenpeace Belgium therefore filed a legal complaint before the civil court. In July, the court declared itself incompetent to adjudicate because of the principle of separation of powers. Greenpeace appealed and the sentence is now expected in the coming months.

Another complaint was filed before the State Council against the approval by FANC of the LTO Action Plans of Doel 1&2. Greenpeace and Ecopower are also preparing a complaint before the European Commission for an infraction against the EU competition and state aid rules. In order to make the plex of the old units profitable for Electrabel/Engie, the government granted some unjustified benefits to the operator.

Cracked reactors will restart in December

In the summer of 2012, thousands of unexplained hydrogen flakes were detected at the reactor pressure vessels of Doel 3 and Tihange 2, both 1,000 MW PWR's from 1982 and 1983. In May 2013, although the origin of the problem remained unclear and uncertainty existed about the evolution of the cracks, FANC approved the restart of both reactors and imposed some additional tests. In March 2014, the results of these test necessitated once again the shut-down of the reactors.

After the presentation of a report in which the operator demonstrated the integrity of the reactor vessels under continued operation, FANC approved in November 2015 the restart of both reactors. Once again FANC revealed itself as a defender of the health of the nuclear industry, rather than as a watchdog for the safety and health of the public. Three years after the cracks were discovered, there is still not certainty about the cause of the problem or the evolution of it.

Doel and Tihange are situated very close to the cities of Antwerp and Liège. 1.5 million people are living within 30 km from the Doel nuclear plant. Under such circumstances, the restart of both reactors remains more than questionable.

Nuclear phase-out jeopardized but not undone

The decisions to plex the oldest reactors for another 10 years and to restart the two cracked reactors will surely hamper the nuclear phase-out in Belgium. However, the final phase-out date remains 2025. According to the new law, the phase-out calendar is now as follows:

2022 : Doel 3

2023 : Tihange 2

2025 : Doel 1, Doel 2, Doel 4, Tihange 1 and Tihange 4