While at the moment five out of Belgium's seven reactors are not working – causing huge debates about both safety and security of supply – the Belgium Parliament on June 18 accepted a Bill that regulates lifetime extension of the Doel-1 and 2 reactors.
Both are 433 MW pressurized water reactors (PWRs), started up in 1975, and with an original lifespan of 30 years. Under the earlier phase-out law of 2003, they were allowed to run for 40 years. Doel-1 reached that age on 15 February 2015 and has been shut down since then. Doel-2 was to be taken out of service on December 1 of this year.
The now-accepted amendment allows both reactors to remain operational until 2025. This is if the national nuclear regulator (FANC) gives approval. FANC is currently investigating whether the "Long Term Operation" (LTO) plan of the owner of the reactors (Engie/Electrabel) offers sufficient security guarantees for extended operation. Meanwhile NGOs are fighting the lifetime extension through legal proceedings.
FANC sets the bar very low
FANC in 1999 postulated that the old reactors could remain in service longer only if it could be demonstrated that they could match − if needed via upgrades − the safety levels of a new-build. However FANC has announced that weaker criteria will apply. According to FANC the reactors now only have to meet the standards of the current "youngest Belgian reactors." These, however, date from 1985. All the lessons learned after Chernobyl and Fukushima are not taken into account in these "youngest reactors".
From the LTO synthesis report1 one can learn that FANC is very lenient about the necessity to introduce and implement lessons learned after the "Fukushima stress tests".
Standard safety measures that apply to new build reactors these days (like a core catcher) are not required. Nor is it required that the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel is bunkered.
Some of the required actions to improve safety only have to be implemented later; some as late as five years after the start of the 10-year period of life-time extension. For example, filtered ventilation systems will only need to be installed in the reactor buildings by the end of 2019, when half of the period of lifetime extension has already passed.
It is expected that FANC will announce its decision in the coming months. Given the fact that the regulator seems to have lowered the bar, it is likely that Engie/Electrabel will get permission to run the Doel-1 and 2 reactors for 10 more years.
International obligations are ignored
During the parliamentary debates that preceded the adoption of the Bill there has been much discussion about whether such a decision has to be accompanied with a full Environmental Impact Assessment and a (cross-border) public consultation process. The State Council – the highest legal advisory body of the Belgium Government – gave its opinion on 8 May 2015: Yes, both an EIA and public consultation are indeed obligatory under (inter)national law.
Also, a legal opinion commissioned by the internationally well-known law firm Stibbe clearly indicated that an EIA with public participation should take place before any decision on lifetime extension can be taken. However the Belgium Minister for Energy, Marie-Christine Marghem, refuses to do so.
The State Council substantiates its opinion by referring to the "Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context" (the Espoo Convention) and the "Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters" (the Aarhus Convention). Both international conventions are ratified by Belgium. In addition, the State Council referred to the European Directive 2011/92 / EU (the EIA Directive) as well as Directive 92/43 / EEC (the so-called Habitat Directive).
All these conventions force countries to organize such undertakings for "any activity that may have a significant impact on the environment". The lifetime extension of nuclear reactors is clearly such an activity. A process to involve the public in decision making should not only be implemented in Belgium but also neighboring countries where a potential impact can be expected.
The government fears that organizing both a full EIA and a transboundary consultancy process will take so much time that it cannot be completed before the start of the official period of lifetime extension of the reactors. This would mean that Doel-1 would not be available until 2016 and Doel 2 would have to shut-down in December. Also Tihange 1, whose lifetime extension has already been approved, would have to close in October, as an EIA was not done there either.
But it's a bit strange to set aside international binding laws because you fear a possible result of applying those rules.
Greenpeace Belgium continues to fight the decision to not conduct an EIA and public consultation process in court. WISE is urging the Dutch national and local governments to urge the Belgians to indeed organize information and debate sessions in the Netherlands (the Doel nuclear power stations are located just a few kilometers from the border with the Netherlands).
The international organization Nuclear Transparency Watch has brought the case to the attention of the European Commission.
Dependency on nuclear threatens security of supply
The official justification for the plan to extend the lifetime of Doel-1 and 2 are identical to those used by previous Belgium governments, "to safeguard security of supply during the winters". This is a so-called chicken-and-egg debate since it is actually the excessive dependence on unreliable nuclear reactors that has threatened the security of supply.
The nuclear industry in Belgium has been plagued by many incidents and accidents. The Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors (both 1000 MW PWRs) were out of order between July 2012 and June 2013 after thousands of cracks were discovered in the reactor vessels. After further research FANC gave "conditional permission to again start production" but in March 2014 both reactors had to close down again. Additional tests showed inexplicable problems with the 'fracture toughness of the reactor vessels'. In the past 17 months these reactors have not produced any electricity.
Doel 4 (also 1000 MW PWR) was shut down after an act of sabotage in September 2014. The reactor started production again in December 2014 but investigations into the sabotage are still ongoing – more than 40 workers of the reactor are now forced to undergo a lie detector test. Forty of them so far refuse to do so.
Doel-1 was shut down in February this year as the official life-time was reached and legislation for lifetime extension was not (yet) in place.
Officially the nuclear phase-out law (in 2025) is still in place. But the current signal of postponed closure dates for Doel 1- and 2 undermines the energy transition and blocks investments in alternative, clean energy options.
The calendar for the closure and thus nuclear phase-out in Belgium is as follows − assuming the new legislative changes are implemented:
- Doel 3: October 1, 2022 (40 years)
- Tihange 2: February 1, 2023 (40 years)
- Doel 1: February 15, 2025 (50 years)
- Doel 4: July 1, 2025 (40 years)
- Tihange 3: September 1, 2025 (40 years)
- Tihange 1: October 1, 2025 (50 years)
- Doel 2: December 1, 2025 (50 years.
Besides Doel-1 and 2 (433 MW) these are all 1000 MW PWRs.
'Belgium and the END of nuclear power', 19 March 2015, Nuclear Monitor #800, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/800/belgium-and-end-nuclear-power