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Belgian government confirms nuclear phase-out

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Eloi Glorieux ‒ Senior Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace Belgium

The Belgian federal and regional governments finally reached an agreement on an Energy Pact, which is presented as the new federal energy strategy. In December 2017, the energy minister of the federal government and the energy ministers of the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels Capital Region) reached a draft agreement ‒ but the largest federal majority party, the Flemish-nationalist N-VA, raised objections over the economic aspects. They preconceived that the closure between 2022 and 2025 of the seven PWRs of Doel and Tihange, representing a production capacity of about 5,900 MW, would have severe economic consequences, specifically for energy intensive industries.

Over the past decades, small and middle-sized enterprises and families in Belgium paid one of the highest electricity bills of OECD countries. This made it possible for nuclear operator Electrabel to amortize its reactors within a time period of 20 years and to supply baseload power at a dumping price to the big consumers. New studies, ordered by the federal energy minister, showed that the economic impact of the nuclear phase-out would not be insurmountable.

N-VA finally gave up its resistance and on 30 March 2018 the government presented its new federal energy strategy. This strategy serves five objectives: to secure the power supply, to respect the Paris agreements on climate change, to keep the electricity bill for companies and families competitive and to sustain a high as possible safety level for the power production plants. A monitoring committee will be established to monitor the evolution of these five objectives. Before 31 December 2018, the government will present a 'National Energy and Climate Plan 2030' to the European Commission. Meanwhile, the execution of the new federal energy strategy began, with the assignment of additional zones for offshore wind parks in the North Sea. In order to enable the closure of the seven nuclear reactors between 2022 and 2025, additional gas production capacity will also be enabled and interconnections with neighboring countries will be strengthened.

Does this mean that the nuclear phase-out in Belgium is set in stone once and for all? No, as illustrated by the decisions in 2014 and 2015 to extend the lifetime of Tihange 1 and Doel 1&2, although their decommissioning was imposed by the nuclear phase-out law. The big difference, however, is that this time all political parties – majority and opposition – with the exception of one small extreme right-wing party, have agreed to the new federal energy strategy.

The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. In this respect the federal elections of 2019 will be decisive. If the governmental agreement of that new coalition confirms the nuclear phase-out unequivocally, then it will be very difficult to reverse the decision.

Meanwhile, grassroots groups from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany ‒ along with environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and WISE ‒ are requesting the immediate shut-down of Doel 3 and Tihange 2, which have thousands of cracks in their reactor pressure vessel. Recently, the city council of Liège, 25 km from Tihange, voted in favor of a resolution for the early closure of the cracked Tihange 2 reactor. There are also several court cases hanging on the decision to extend the lifetime of Tihange 1 and Doel 1&2 without having organized an Environmental Impact Assessment and cross-border public consultation processes. The outcomes of these court cases may well lead to an earlier closure of the oldest reactors than foreseen in the new federal energy strategy.