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Belgium struggles with the problem of old, dangerous nuclear reactors

nukes-sad-Belgium’s nuclear reactors are phasing themselves out   tby Eloi Glorieux – On Wednesday 10 September 2014, Greenpeace activists in Brussels visited the politicians currently negotiating a new federal governmental agreement about the country’s nuclear power supply. We were there to make it clear that nuclear power is not only dangerous but also unreliable.

Belgium’s over-dependence on nuclear power has resulted in a potentially severe energy supply problem. Politicians are now panicking and confusing the cause of the problem with the solution…..

This is the impression we get from the government negotiations currently taking place in Belgium. A cartoon summarized it this way:

So finally we will extend the lifetime of the oldest reactors!”

“Oh, but why not extend the lifetime of the younger reactors?”

“Because they are obsolete!”

Indeed,the party leaders negotiating the new agreement said they intend to extend the lifetime of two 40-year-old reactors, Doel 1 and 2. Only a few months ago, the previous government had confirmed that all nuclear reactors reaching the age of 40 would be phased out, with the exception of the Tihange 1 reactor, which can remain open for 50 years.

The politicians are changing the phase-out policy because of the forced shut down of three other reactors. Two, Doel 3 and Tihange 2, were off line nearly a year between 2012 and 2013, due to the discovery of thousands of cracks in the reactors’ steel containment vessels. They were shut down again in March 2014, and so far it appears they may never restart again.

To add to the woes of politicians and the nuclear industry, sabotage on 5 Aug. by an unidentified member of staff severely damaged the steam turbine of the Doel 4 reactor, causing its automatic shut down. Nobody knows when it will be able to restart, but it will certainly not be before the end of the year.

Three reactors down, four to go…

This brings us to the Doel 1 and 2 reactors, which, according to the Belgian nuclear phase-out law, must be decommissioned at the age of 40 in 2015. However, because no one expected that 3000 MW of electricity from Doel 3, Doel 4 and Tihange 2 would be unavailable, the grid operator has said it cannot guarantee the security of electricity supply at all times during the next two winters.

This has inspired the politicians to reconsider the nuclear phase-out law and to grant lifetime extensions to Doel 1 and 2.

In order to convince the party leaders and future ministers of the new government not to make this mistake, Greenpeace activists blocked the entrance of the building where the negotiations were taking place.

Before they were able to enter the building, and in front of massive media attention, the politicians listened to us. Our talks were short but to the point and most of the politicians were open to our arguments:

  • 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.

The negotiators later emphasized to the press that they had not yet taken a final decision on the lifetime extension. Watch this space. Eloi Glorieux is Senior Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace Belgium.

September 15, 2014 - Posted by | general

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