At the end of the sixties Belgium decided to start producing a large share of its electricity with nuclear. Between 1975 and 1985 a total of 7 reactors were put online. Today nuclear is responsible for 55 % of total power production, making Belgium the fourth most nuclear country worldwide, after France, Lithuania and Slovakia.
In 2003, with the Green Party in government, a phase-out law was passed, deciding to stop the nuclear reactors after 40 years of lifetime. Under the phase-out law, the oldest nuclear plants (Doel I and II and Tihange I) representing one third of the nuclear capacity, should thus be closed in 2015. But the new federal government, elected in 2007, now decided to extend the life of the oldest plants by 10 years at least.
The decision of the government was carefully prepared by the Social-Democrat energy-minister, Paul Magnette. The possibility of a extension of the lifetime of the nuclear power plants was foreseen under the phase-outlaw, but submitted to very strict conditions (‘major risk for supply’). Minister Magnette ordered a study that should have proved that these conditions had been met, but failed to do so. Most legal specialists agree that, in order to legalise the government’s decision, the parliament will have to change the phase-out law.
The official position of the government is that the energy supply could be at risk, if the date of 2015 is kept. This position is based on the conclusions of the ‘Gemix-study’ that was ordered by minister Magnette. But in the first parliamentary debate about the Gemix-study, the conclusions where under severe attack. The spokesperson of the national energy-regulating body, the CREG, informed the MP’s that the calculations in the Gemix study where not based on the correct figures. This was remarkable, for the Gemix-study mentioned CREG as the source of the figures, whereupon the conclusions were based. The CREG added they have analysed the situation and came to the conclusion that even after closing the 3 nuclear reactors in 2015, the capacity of the remaining Belgian electricity production plants, will still meet the electricity needs.
Environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace, had already criticized some major elements in the Gemix-study, such as the unrealistic growth of demand (1,2% a year), underestimation of the energy-efficiency potential; and underestimation of the capacity available from gas fired STEG’s (combined heat-power): 63 % instead of 90 %.
All this leads to the conclusion that the Gemix-study has been strongly manipulated in order to meet the goals set by the government. One of the international experts, which contributed to the study, Dr. Eichhammer of the German Frauenhofer Institute, does not support the Gemix-conclusions.
The chances, however, that the government will change its position, are considered to be very small, as all parties in the cabinet seem to agree on the issue.
Link to the budget
The decision by the Belgian government is strongly linked to the national budget-issue. The deficit, due to the bank- and economical crisis, reaches more than 25 billion euro’s. Minister Magnette linked the ending of the nuclear phase-out to a major contribution of the nuclear monopolist Electrabel (Group Suez /Gaz de France) to the Belgian budget. The benefits of the written out old reactors for Electrabel are calculated to be over 1.2 billion euro (US$1.7 bn) a year, but Electrabel does not seem to be prepared to pay more than 215-245 million euro till 2015. This is far below what Magnette first announced. But now the government seems to have accepted the Electrabel figures, even though it remains unclear if Electrabel will finally pay any contribution at all. As usual, government and Electrabel meet behind closed doors and decision making is far from being transparent.
Electrabel is traditionally very strongly linked to the Belgian political parties and has kept control over the Belgian energy-policy for more than 30 years. Only after the Christian-Democrats lost control over the federal government (period 1999-2007) the power of Electrabel was strongly weakened, but as the elections of June 2007 brought the Christen-Democrats back to the centre of power (first with prime minister Yves Leterme, now with his successor Herman van Rompuy, both CD&V – Flemish Christian democrats), ‘old politics’ seem to be restored. Besides that, also the Walloon Socialist Party has renewed its long lasting relationship with Electrabel. Only the Green parties and the Flemish socialists (all opposition parties currently) criticize the governmental decision. Right winged opposition parties do support the majority on the principle of stopping the nuclear phase out.
For the environmental movement, the abandoning of the nuclear phase-out would be a major defeat. It would mean a serious set back for the development of renewable energy and for energy efficiency. Environmentalists have failed to convince the public opinion that closing the first reactors would not lead to ‘switching off the light’, as conservatives and nuclear lobbyists have repeatedly stated.