Nuclear Power in Belgium: Contested but Still Dominant

June 1, 2016 | 00:00
Nuclear Power in Belgium: Contested but Still Dominant
Nuclear Power in Belgium: Contested but Still Dominant
In 2003, the Belgium government decided to phase-out the nuclear fission power plants on its territory. But until now, it has showed much creativity in postponing the closing dates and adding reservation clauses. The actual result is that, despite published official closing dates, nobody believes the closing date for any reactor is definitive. Unlike Germany, Belgium hasn't undertaken any irreversible action to prepare the phase-out. Because of this insecure economical and political climate initiatives to install sufficient alternative production capacity haven't been taken yet.

Currently nuclear reactors represent 39,3% of the installed power plant capacity in Belgium. In 2014, nuclear reactors realised 47,5% of the domestic electricity production by power plants. In relative terms, worldwide only France is more nuclear dependent.

2 of the 7 Belgian nuclear reactors are fully owned by Electrabel-Engie, 4 for 89,8% and one for 50%. EDF Luminus possesses all other shares. Electrabel-Engie alone takes care for the practical exploitation. In both groups the French state is the major shareholder.

Nor the government, nor the nuclear plant owners seem to be very impressed by repeated questions from green environmental organisations, citizens from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany –the nuclear plants are located not far from the Dutch/German border– and even from government bodies in Germany and Luxemburg who urge to dismantle at least the oldest reactors and also Doel 3 and Tihange 2, because of presumed manufacturing defects –microscopic flaws– in the reactor vessels. A prolonged temporary stop of these 'cracking reactors' during an inspection by international specialists caused the share of nuclear reactors in electricity production to drop to 37,5% in 2015.
electricity production 2015 febeg

Today, anti-nuclear organisations are also jumping on every even minor technical incident in the plants. This seems exaggerated, however one major incident in August 2014 has been proven to be the result of sabotage, most probably conducted by an insider. Until now, the saboteur has not been found. Although, the incident did not happen in the nuclear part of the infrastructure, it caused reactor Doel 4 to be out of service for several months.

Early adopter

The Belgian nuclear tradition really started in 1957, the year the United States decided to stop their nuclear protectionism and to share their non-military nuclear knowledge with other countries. But even before 1957, a cultural background favourable for nuclear projects existed. Source of this background was the discovery of uranium ore, in 1913 in Congo, at the time a Belgian colony. Belgium used this uranium mainly for the production of radium, in a plant in Olen, near Mol. In 1940, the uranium in Olen was shipped to New York, just before Hitler invaded Belgium. After the Belgian government fled to London, Belgium was under political pressure to hand over the resources of its colony for British war efforts. After the US entered the war, it found itself a more comfortable financial-economic position between the two main allied powers. Finally, all uranium exploited in Congo was to be directed to the US. Using the money received from the Americans and a volume in America enriched uranium, in 1952 Belgium opened a study centre for nuclear applications in Mol.

Farewell to coal

In 1966, Belgium ordered seven nuclear reactors at the nuclear division of Westinghouse Electric Company. In this time period Belgium still had a large domestic activity in coal exploitation. Despite the fact that some Belgian coal mines used the most modern mining technology then available, it was clear that the future economic prospects for deep underground mining were rather gloomy. Imported coal extracted in surface mines was cheaper. Compared to other counties, the productivity of Belgian miners was rather low and Belgian coal was over-subsidized. Because of all this the government started to close the Belgian coal mines in 1966.


Belgium has two nuclear power plants, in Doel near the Scheldt river in the Dutch speaking part of the country and in Tihange near the Meuse river in the French speaking part. Contrary to Belgian political traditions, this choice wasn't related to the political balancing act between the two languages. The Scheldt and the Meuse are the only Belgian rivers that can provide the necessary amounts of cooling waters. The North Sea coast could have been a potential site, but in the early 1970s organized anti-nuclear –and in general anti-industrial– civil platforms already existed.

Nuclear power plant in Doel
Nuclear power plant in Doel

In the early '70s the first oil crisis (1973) stimulated the Belgian ambition to become less oil dependent. Exploitation of the three smallest reactors (Doel 1 & 2, each 433 MW) and Tihange 1 (962 MW) started in 1975. Doel 3 (1.006 MW) opened in 1982, Tihange 2 (1.008 MW) in 1983 and Doel 4 (1.039 MW) and Tihange 3 (1.046 MW) in 1985. In the phase-out debate, those dates are important. When the government lead by Guy Verhofstadt in 2003 took the first phase-out decision, it stipulated that the reactors would be shut down after they reached the age of 40 years. Opponents of nuclear powers and also some politicians since then use this age in popular debate almost as an end-of-safe-use date. Originally, 40 years was the period foreseen for financial depreciation in bookkeeping. Most parts of the reactors and surrounding infrastructure are regularly replaced. Only the reactor chamber is very difficult to replace. In a recent interview, Frank Hardeman, deputy CEO of the Mol study centre that is actively involved in the condition tests of this vessels, said they can be maintained 60 or even 80 years.

Miles and kilometres

Another strange number is the safety distance between the nuclear plants and large Belgian agglomerations. Belgium translated the American safe evacuation distance of 10 miles as 10 kilometres (6.2 miles). This alternative calculation, places Antwerp, a city with almost 0,5 million inhabitants, just out of the evacuation zone. Furthermore, the safety distance was measured not form the city borders, but from the city centre.

In 2003, the green parties were part of the governing coalition that decided to close down the nuclear plants, starting from 2015. Already at the time, nobody believed that decision would stand. But at the time, then green deputy minister Olivier Deleuze predicted that at the very least, there would be a reckoning: "Now that there is a decision, it will be impossible for the government in 2015 to keep silent and do nothing. It will have to nail its colours to the mast", he predicted. Today, history has proved him partly right. Subsequent governments couldn't let the nuclear reactors 40th birthday go by unnoticed, but until now they didn't nail colours. Only the conservative –and pro-nuclear– Flemish nationalist parties, the –anti-nuclear– green parties and extreme left showed a straight back and conformity between words and deeds. However, the greens haven't participated in federal governments since Verhofstadt 1 (1999-2003).

Christian-democrat, socialist and liberal parties, that delivered prime ministers and energy ministers afterwards, ignored or used whatever reports or studies –f.i. about possible black-outs or security of supply– according their needs of the moment: in favour of keeping the nuclear plants open or to justify other projects they liked, such as pumped hydroelectric energy storage in the Belgian part of the North Sea. The security of supply during cold winters, the Paris climate engagements and the transition towards renewable energy were all used to justify prolonging the lives - with 10 years extra - of the three reactors that had to be closed down in 2015. Tihange 1 got its extra 10 years in 2013, Doel 1 and 2 at the end of 2015. For Doel the situation is even more complicated. Even though Doel is already a good year into its extra life span, the parliament still hasn't approved the agreement between the government and the plant owners, that grants the plant its 10 extra years by overruling the 2003 law.

Vicious circle

A positive point is that the very last Belgian coal-fired power plant was closed early this year. Whatever the opinions about nuclear energy in Belgium, everyone agrees that coal is more dangerous for the environment and the climate. And nobody speaks about blackouts any more. But the negative effect is that nobody is sure what will happen when the younger reactors reach the age of 40 and the older the age of 50, whatever any minister says today. Investors are very reluctant to invest in large scale alternative energy production, as in case of overproduction, cheap nuclear electricity from existing plants can push electricity from new installations out of the market. This creates a circular logic: recently Fatih Birol, executive director at the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned Belgium that it would be too hasty to phase-out nuclear energy by 2025, as there won't be enough renewable electricity production by then.

Radioactive waste

Another problem is the storage and processing of radioactive waste. Belgium doesn't have a solution yet for radioactive waste, neither for long-lived nor short-lived waste. Short-lived waste is stocked today in the open air and in special buildings in and near Mol, a – long persisting – temporary solution. For long-lived waste, a research laboratory has been excavated in a 225m deep geological clay deposit, near the Mol study centre. The National Institute for Radioactive Waste (Niras) has been waiting since March 2015 for a government decision to store the long-lived waste in deep clay deposits. Once this decision is taken, it can calculate the costs for this geological storage. After a nuclear reactor is shut down, decommissioning costs will continue for many years. Even though the owners of the nuclear plants have created a special fund for this purpose, the general opinion is, that it won't be able to cover all costs.
Hades Praclay Gallery
Hades Praclay Gallery

More than making the principal choice for or against nuclear energy, the federal governments that have ruled Belgium the past decade have been trying to impose on the nuclear plant owners a special tax on – real or supposed – nuclear profits. They didn't do so by ordinary government decisions and by parliamentary legislation, but by negotiations with Electrabel-Engie. The first result was a number of lawsuits and appeals. Some of them concerned Electrabel and the fiscal authorities, but there is also a European lawsuit, submitted by some interest groups in the renewable energy sector. They argue that the financial part of the agreement to extend the lifetime of the nuclear plants involves a kind of state support, forbidden by European legislation.

Even though most Belgian politicians and even Engie say they don't see a future for the existing nuclear plants, there are no indications that Belgium will close even one nuclear reactor in the near future. If this or a next parliament should reject the agreement about the life span prolongation of Tihange 1 and Doel 1 and 2 until 2025, probably the government and Engie will start new negotiations, without interrupting the nuclear power generation. The next important date is October 1, 2022, the date embedded in the 2003 law tot close Doel 3. Recent history shows that it is much easier to change or ignore a law in Belgium, than it is to close a nuclear power plant.

Top image: Nuclear power plant in Tihange. Source: Electrabel-Engie.
Image: Nuclear power plant in Doel. Source: Electrabel-Engie.
Image: Hades Praclay Gallery. Source: Koen Mortelmans.

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