Belgium is a microcosm of the ageing nuclear power industry. The International Energy Agency predicts a "wave of retirements"1 − almost 200 reactor shut downs by 2040 − and Oilprice.com argues that it is unclear whether new build will offset the "tidal wave" of reactor shut downs over the next 20 years.2 Belgium is at the sharp edge of this new nuclear era: the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning, the END.
Belgium's seven reactors − all pressurized water reactors − are all operated by Electrabel, a GDF Suez subsidiary. Electrabel owns 100% of two reactors, 89.8% of four reactors and 50% of one reactor. EDF and SPE are the other companies with ownership stakes.3
When all seven reactors were operating, they supplied about half of Belgium's electricity. All are due to be shut down by the end of 2025. Belgium's nuclear phase-out law mandates the shut down of six reactors when they have operated for 40 years − with the exception of Tihange 1, which is due to be shut down in 2025 when it has operated for 50 years.
All seven reactors have been in the news over the past year:
- Doel 1: Shut down when its 40-year licence expired in February 2015.
- Doel 2: Now operating but due to be shut down in December 2015. GDF Suez / Electrabel is negotiating a possible licence extension for Doel 1 and 2 to operate for another 10 years, and seeking regulatory approval.
- Doel 3 and Tihange 2: Offline since March 2014 due to concerns about the integrity of reactor pressure vessels; future uncertain.
- Doel 4: Offline for more than four months in 2014 due to suspected sabotage of the high-pressure turbine. Now operating.
- Tihange 1: Now in its fortieth year of operation but licensed to operate for another 10 years. Greenpeace has initiated a legal challenge against the licence extension, because of the failure to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment and cross-boundary consultation in line with Belgium's obligations under the Espoo Convention (the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context). Court hearings are scheduled for March 24 and the judge is expected to present his verdict soon after.
- Tihange 3: Briefly shut down following a fire in December 2014. Now operating.
Policies and politics
Nuclear power policies and laws have been in flux over the past two decades:3
- In 1999, the government announced that reactor lifetimes would be limited to 40 years, and banned further reprocessing.
- In 2003, the Belgian Parliament passed legislation banning the building of new power reactors and limited the operating lives of existing reactors to 40 years.
- In 2009, the government decided to postpone the phase-out by 10 years, so that it would not begin before 2025. This would allow the licensing of reactor life extensions. Reactor operators agreed to pay a special tax of €215−245 million (US$227−259m) per year from 2010−14, and more thereafter. GDF Suez also agreed to subsidise renewables and demand-side management by paying at least €500 million (US$528m) for both, and it maintaining 13,000 jobs in energy efficiency and recycling.
However, an election in April 2010 occurred before the agreed proposals were passed by parliament and thus the nuclear phase-out law remains in place. In July 2012 Belgium's Council of Ministers announced that Doel 1 and 2 were to close in 2015 after 40 years of operation, but Tihange 1 would be permitted to operate to 2025. This was written into law in December 2013. The government said that it had rewritten the 2003 law so that its current stance could not be changed by decree, and therefore the timing of the phase-out "is now final."3,4
In December 2014 the Council of Ministers from the new ruling coalition government agreed that Doel 1 and 2 could continue operating for a further 10 years, to 2025. Energy minister Marie-Christine Marghem said that it was an "unconditional prerequisite" that the Belgian nuclear regulator − the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) − approve licence extensions for the two reactors. She noted that Belgium's planned nuclear phase-out by the end of 2025 remains in place.4
The government decision to allow Doel 1 and 2 to continue to operate for a further 10 years was partly a result of problems with other reactors − in particular the outages of Tihange 2 and Doel 3 and uncertainty about their future. GDF Suez / Electrabel is in negotiation with the Belgian government over the Doel 1 and 2 licence extensions but an agreement has not yet been reached − hence the shut down of Doel 1 in February in accordance with the nuclear phase-out law. Further, the regulator FANC has not yet approved licence extensions for Doel 1 and 2.4
GDF Suez / Electrabel is unwilling to invest up to €600−700 million (US$634−740m) in necessary upgrades to Doel 1 and 2 unless the government provides a "clear legal and economic framework" to justify the investment. Negotiations include removal of the nuclear generation tax introduced by a previous government − according to the World Nuclear Association, that tax cost the company €397 million (US$419m) in 2014.5
As Rianne Teule, campaign director for Greenpeace Belgium, put it: "In order to agree to such a large investment, Electrabel demands 'a clear legal and economic framework'. Read: 'a good deal to reduce the investment risks'. It's the Belgian people who will pay the price, one way or another. If not through increased taxes, when Electrabel's payments to the state decrease, then through increased electricity prices when Electrabel passes on their investments to their clients."6
In 2012 the government passed laws increasing the tax on nuclear operators. The government set a total contribution from nuclear operators for 2012 of €550 million (US$581m), of which Electrabel had to pay €479 million (US$506m). In June 2013 Electrabel filed an appeal to Belgium's Constitutional Court, claiming the tax violated a protocol signed by the company and the federal government in 2009, which included a lower tax, and took no account of declining revenue from nuclear power generation. In April 2014 the Court of First Instance in Brussels rejected Electrabel's claim. The company appealed, but the appeal was rejected in July 2014. Electrabel said it would continue "to examine all potential legal means in order to defend its interests" and "examine all options concerning the future of its nuclear activities in Belgium."3,7
According to Greenpeace, nuclear power is part of the energy security problem, not part of the solution: "The reason for the potential electricity supply problem is Belgium's excessive dependency (55%) on unreliable nuclear power. A political decision to extend the lifetime of two old reactors will not mitigate this acute supply problem. It will take at least a year to implement the necessary safety upgrades, and to order and fabricate new fuel for them. Extending the legally fixed phase-out calendar will undermine investment in real climate solutions such as energy efficiency and renewables."8
Tihange 2 and Doel 3 − compromised reactor pressure vessels
Doel 3 and Tihange 2 were taken offline in 2012 when ultrasound testing suggested the presence of cracks in their reactor vessels. Further investigations indicated that the defects are so-called hydrogen 'flakes'. FANC allowed Electrabel to restart the reactors in May 2013. However the reactors were again taken offline in March 2014 after Electrabel reported that tests to investigate the mechanical strength of irradiated specimens of similar material "did not deliver results in line with experts' expectations".9 FANC said that "a fracture toughness test revealed unexpected results, which suggested that the mechanical properties of the material were more strongly influenced by radiation than experts had expected."10
In January 2015, FANC said the process to restart the reactors had been extended from April to July so that Electrabel could answer further questions. In February, FANC announced that additional inspections revealed more extensive flaking within the pressure vessels of the two reactors than previously identified. FANC said 13,047 flaw indications have now been found in the vessel of Doel 3 and 3,149 in that of Tihange 2. Further test results are expected by April.1,9
FANC Director General Jans Bens said: "This may be a global problem for the entire nuclear industry. The solution is to implement worldwide, accurate inspections of all 430 nuclear power plants."11
Shortly after approving the restart of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 in May 2013 − a decision that was contested at the time and seems unwise in hindsight − Bens was seriously downplaying nuclear risks: "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."12
Two materials scientists have said the unexpected flaws in Doel 3 and Tihange 2 could be related to corrosion from normal operation, with potential implications for reactors worldwide. Prof. Digby MacDonald said: "The consequences could be very severe ... like fracturing the pressure vessel. Loss of coolant accident. This would be a leak before break scenario. ... My advice is that all reactor operators, under the guidance of the regulatory commissions should be required to do an ultrasonic survey of the pressure vessels. All of them." Prof. Walter Bogaerts said: "If I had to estimate, I would really be surprised if it ... had occurred nowhere else.13,14
Electrabel reacted to the latest news by saying that it may be willing to "sacrifice" one of the two reactors to allow destructive testing to learn more about the problem.15
Doel 3 and 4: Fire and sabotage
On 1 December 2014 at 10:30am, a fire began in the electrical substation transformer building at Doel and led to an emergency shutdown of reactor #3. The fire was put out by the local fire service and the reactor was restarted at 5am the following day.16 Fires at nuclear power plants pose significant risks to reactor safety due to the potential disruption of the electrical supply to vital reactor safety functions. The risks in Belgium are all the greater because of the high population density and the concentration of seven reactors at just two sites.17
Sabotage at Doel 4
The Belgium nuclear industry was shaken on 5 August 2014 when it was revealed that sabotage had caused, in Electrabel's words, "significant damage" at Doel 4. Lubricant had been discharged from the high-pressure turbine through a valve which had probably been opened deliberately by a worker. Some 6,000 professionals from 15 companies participated in the repair of the turbine. The repair involved the manufacture of 2500 blades at four plants in China, Croatia, Italy and Switzerland.18 The reactor was restarted on December 19.19
The END of nuclear power
When the last reactor is shut down in 2025, that won't be the end of Belgium's nuclear program but the beginning of the END − the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning.
In addition to the decommissioning of seven reactors, Belgians will somehow have to manage: high-level nuclear waste currently stored at Dessel and at reactor plants; larger volumes of low- and intermediate-level waste; and other nuclear facilities now in various stages of decommissioning including a MOX fuel fabrication plant and the Eurochemic reprocessing plant at Dessel.
1. International Energy Agency, 2014, 'World Economic Outlook 2014', www.worldenergyoutlook.org
2. Nick Cunningham, 19 Feb 2015, 'Is There Any Hope Left For Nuclear Energy?', http://oilprice.com/Alternative-Energy/Nuclear-Power/Is-There-Any-Hope-L...
3. World Nuclear Association, 17 Feb 2015, 'Nuclear Power in Belgium', www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Belgium/
4. WNN, 12 Feb 2015, 'Belgian reactor shutdown imminent', www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Belgian-reactor-shutdown-imminent-1202156.html
5. WNA Weekly Digest, 27 Feb 2015, http://us1.campaign-archive2.com/?u=140c559a3b34d23ff7c6b48b9&id=b933e03098
6. Rianne Teule, 22 Dec 2014, 'Belgium's government is Electrabel's slave', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/belgiums...
7. World Nuclear News, 18 July 2014, 'Belgian court rejects nuclear tax complaint', www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Belgian-court-rejects-nuclear-tax-complaint...
8. Eloi Glorieux, 13 Sept 2014, 'Belgium's nuclear reactors are phasing themselves out', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/high/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/bel...
9. WNN, 17 Feb 2015, 'Further flaws found in Belgian reactor vessels', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Further-flaws-found-in-Belgian-reactor-ves...
10. FANC, 13 Feb 2015, 'Doel 3/Tihange 2: new update',
11. 13 Feb 2015, 'Veel meer scheuren in kerncentrales dan gedacht', http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/binnenland/1.2238955
12. Justin McKeating, 23 May 2013, 'Fact not fiction: Renewable energy is safer than nuclear power', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/fact-not...
13. Greenpeace, 17 Feb 2015, 'Thousands more cracks found in Belgian nuclear reactors, Belgian regulatory head warns of global implications', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/press/releases/Thousands-more-cracks...
14. Greenpeace, 15 Feb 2015, 'Nuclear Reactor Pressure Vessel Crisis', www.beyondnuclear.org/storage/kk-links/Briefing_cracking_RPV_Greenpeace_...
15. Greenpeace, 17 Feb 2015, 'Thousands of cracks in Belgian reactors, potentially a global nuclear problem', www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/cracks-i...
16. Greenpeace, 3 Dec 2014, www.greenpeace.org/international/en/high/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/bel...
17. Bart Martens, December 2014, 'De Economische Impact van een Kernramp In Doel', study commissioned by Greenpeace Belgium, www.greenpeace.org/belgium/Global/belgium/report/2014/RapportNL.pdf
18. WNN, 5 Dec 2014, 'Doel 4 restart approaches', www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Doel-4-restart-approaches-0512145.html
19. 19 Dec 2014, 'Doel 4 reactor reopens', http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws.english/News/1.2186676