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Belgium: three reactors offline

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Reactor #4 at Belgium's Doel power station shut down automatically on August 5 after "significant damage" was inflicted on a high-pressure steam turbine. The reactor will remain out of operation until at least the end of this year, Electrabel said. The reactor shut down following the loss of oil in its steam turbine. Initial inspections found that the oil had been discharged through a valve which had probably been left open by a worker, according to Electrabel. Belgium's nuclear safety regulator, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), said the oil loss probably resulted from "voluntary manual intervention." A spokesperson for GDF Suez, Electrabel's parent company, said the oil loss resulted from "intentional manipulation". Electrabel, FANC and the Public Prosecutor of Dendermonde municipality are investigating.1

In addition to the Doel 4 incident, the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors are offline because of cracks in steel reactor casings. FANC ordered the temporary shut down of the two reactors in 2012 for inspections when ultrasound testing suggested the possible presence of cracks in their reactor vessels. Further investigations indicated that the defects are so-called hydrogen 'flakes' and were introduced during the manufacturing process.2

In early 2013, FANC set out a list of 16 requirements, with 11 to be met before the reactors could restart. Electrabel submitted an action plan and the reactors restarted in May 2013. But they were closed again in March 2014 after additional tests on hydrogen flakes suggested they may affect the mechanical properties of their reactor vessels. The latest outages were expected to last about six weeks, but the reactors remain offline awaiting the results of further tests.

Belgian state media VRT reported that interim test results show the vessels are weakened by the cracks and may need to remain closed until some time next year or may even remain shut permanently. Electrabel responded: "The tests are making good progress and it is totally premature to draw conclusions from them. The first partial results do not in any case allow us to anticipate a definitive shut down. Once tests are completed, a report will be sent to the FANC, which will in turn decide on the restart of the power plants." The Atomic Power Review blog suggests that the outcome may be ongoing operation of the reactors, but with restrictive operating limits.

In addition to safety risks and sabotage allegations, another concern is that FANC chief Jan Bens appears to have a slender grasp on reality. He said in May 2013: "The harbour of Antwerp is being filled with windmills, and the chemical industry is next to it. If there is an accident like a break in one of the wings, that is a guillotine. If that goes through a chloride pipe somewhere, it will be a problem of a bigger magnitude than what can happen at Doel. Windmills are more dangerous than nuclear power plants."3