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Belgium: next nuclear domino to fall

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Eloi Glorieux, Energy Campaigner Greenpeace Belgium

In the early 1960,  the Nuclear Research Center (SCK) in Mol accommodated the very first PWR in Europe. In the late 1960, without any political or public debate, the Belgian government decided at one singe minister council meeting to launch a nuclear power program. Just like France, the intention was to build up a 100 percent nuclear electricity system. In the small and very densely populated country, it was not easy to find suitable sites. Finally, two sites were selected:  Doel, near the Schelde river, at only 11 km from the city of Antwerp with half a million inhabitants; and  Tihange, near the Meuse river at only 3 km from the city of Huy.

In 1975, the three first reactors were connected to the grid: Doel 1 and Doel 2 (500 MW each) and Tihange 1 (1.000 MW). All of them were second generation PWR's from US and French design. Between 1982 and 1985 four more 1.000 MW reactors were build: two at Doel and two more at Tihange. The construction works for the eight Belgian nuclear reactor were stopped in 1986, due to the Chernobyl disaster. From that moment onwards the consecutive federal governments put a moratorium on new reactors.  

Turning point: 2003 nuclear phase-out law
The elections of 1999 brought a political earthquake. The Christian democrats moved, after many decades of power, to the opposition and a coalition of liberals, social democrats and greens took over. The greens managed to get the nuclear phase-out into the governmental agreement and on the initiative of the green energy secretary of state the parliament voted with a vast majority in 2003 the nuclear phase-out law.

The 2003 phase-out law stipulates that all seven commercial nuclear power reactors will be decommissioned after 40 years of operation. This gives the following calendar:
Reactor                                start-up          closure

Doel 1 (500 MW)                   1975                2015

Doel 2 (500 MW)                   1975                2015

Tihange 1 (1.000 MW)           1975                2015

Doel 3 (1.000 MW)                1982                2022

Tihange 2 (1.000 MW)           1983                2023

Doel 4 (1.000 MW)                1985                2025

Tihange 3 (1.000 MW)           1985                2025

However, in order to get the liberals to vote the law, a paragraph was added, stating that the lifetime of the reactors could be extended if the security of supply would be endangered.

The nuclear lobby at its best
After the federal elections of June 2003, a few months after the phase-out law was voted, a new government of liberals and social democrats, but without greens, was formed. This new government confirmed the phase-out law in its governmental agreement, but did nothing to initiate replacement capacity. Electrabel (now taken over by GDF-Suez) and the Nuclear Forum started an unseen PR-offensive. The elections of 2007 brought the Christian democrats back in power in a conservative coalition with liberals and Flemish nationalists. One of the first statements of the new prime minister Leterme was that he would go for a ten years lifetime extension of the three oldest reactors and twenty years for the four other reactors. In October 2009 prime minister Van Rompuy, who succeeded Leterme, signed a draft protocol with GDF-Suez CEO, Mestrallet, in which they agreed to extend the lifetime of Doel 1, Doel 2 and Tihange 1 with ten years in exchange for a yearly nuclear tax of 250 million euro. This was a gift to the French multinational, because the Belgian energy regulator, CREG, calculated the windfall profits for GDF-Suez at 2,1 billion euro. This protocol, however, had no legal basis as long as the 2003 nuclear phase-out was not changed. So the government prepared a new law proposal. But in March 2010, before the new law had been presented to the parliament, the government fell. At the elections, the voters reshuffled the political cards so drastically, that it finally took more than one and a half year before a new government with full competences to change the law could be formed (a government-of-current-affairs is not entitled to change the law).

Fukushima created a new awareness
The nuclear disaster in Fukushima created a new awareness, not only in the public's mind, but also within the political parties. An opinion poll showed that 66% of the citizens wanted the nuclear power stations to close as foreseen in the 2003 phase-out law, only 21% opposed.  76% preferred investments in renewables over lifetime extension of nuclear reactors. October 2011 brought a breakthrough in the political impasse and finally, in December, after more than one  and a half year, a new government of social democrats, christian democrats and liberals was formed. 

The governmental agreement stipulates that the 2003 nuclear phase-out law will be respected, but the exact closing date of the three oldest reactors would depend on the availability of replacement capacity. Within six months, i.e. by May 2012, a study will be made about when the replacement capacity will be ready to come on line. It will than, depend on the government to decide whether to stick to the original decommissioning calendar (2015 for the three oldest reactors) or to extend the lifetime of (some of) those reactors with a couple of years. Because they agreed to respect the principle of the phase-out, an automatic lifetime extension of ten years, as wanted by GDF-Suez Electrabel, is out of the question. GDF-Suez Electrabel plays it very hard by blackmailing the government. They threaten to disinvest in Belgium and to withdraw their administrative center out of the country. They also oppose the governmental decision to increase the nuclear tax from 250 to 510 million euro.

A lot now will depend on the political decision of the new secretary of state responsible for Energy, the christian democrat Wathelet, who has always been a rather pro-nuclear guy.

There is already enough replacement capacity
The three oldest reactors  produce some 16% of the electricity in Belgium. A report on energy efficiency commissioned by Greenpeace shows that there is an unused electricity saving potential that can be realized on the short term at low cost, covering 2/3 of the capacity produced by the three oldest reactors. The Dutch electricity producing company Eneco declares that it has all the environmental and construction licenses for the construction of two steam and gas plants with the capacity of Doel 1 and Doel 2. However, they will not start the construction as long as they are not sure that the oldest nuclear reactors will be closed in 2015.  As a matter of fact, it is the government itself who can determine whether or not there will be enough replacement capacity. If they would take right now the clear decision that the three oldest reactors will be closed in 2015 and not one year later, other electricity companies would be eager to establish themselves on the Belgian market. As long as the door for a lifetime extension of even only a few years is kept open, nobody will move.

Source and contact: Eloi Glorieux, Energy Campaigner Greenpeace Belgium. Haachtsesteenweg 159, 1030 Brussels, Belgium.
Tel: +32 475 982093
Mail: eloi.glorieux[at]