Belgium’s Nuclear Reprieve
Even as reactors close, Belgium activists take heart that at least two will be saved
With all the news coming out of Belgium, it’s hard to know whether we should be cheering or grieving. First of all, let’s address the fact that on January 31st, the 1,008MW Tihange 2 reactor will be shutting down, a climate crime made worse by the fact that it is being committed in the middle of an energy crisis. Like the 1,006MW Doel 3 reactor which was shut down last September, Tihange 2 is a high-performing plant in midlife with excellent life-extension possibilities. This cuts Belgium’s nuclear fleet down from 7 to 5 plants.
On the other hand, we also have cause to celebrate. The government of Belgium finally reached a deal with French utility Engie to extend the life of 2 of Belgium’s 7 reactors — Doel 4 and Tihange 2 — by ten years. Recall as recently as Christmas, 2021, Belgium still planned to be completely out of nuclear power by 2025. Of course, the government’s hands were forced by the war in Ukraine, making it even more insane than it already was to force such an early nuclear exit for Belgium, which as recently as 2021 was running on 50% nuclear power.
"The extension of these two nuclear reactors is crucial to guarantee our energy security," said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. So why not save more?
It’s a confusing picture. To find out how we got here and what the future holds, I called Pieter Van De Perre, Chemical Engineer by trade and Ecomodernist by passion.
Seven Party Government
How does a country of less than 12 million people end up with a coalition government with seven parties? The answer is, with great difficulty. In 2003, to form a government the coalition needed the Greens. And the Green Party of Belgium had one top priority: to rid the country of their fleet of nuclear power plants, a legacy from the oil crisis of the 1970s.
“The Greens are not a party that governs, they are really more like a pressure group,” said Van De Perre. 2003’s Nuclear Abandonment Act was fanatically ambitious, calling for no new nuclear plants to be built and for existing reactors to be shut down as they reach 40 years of age.
Unsurprisingly, this highly-unrealistic deadline soon lead to Belgium having an energy crisis long before it was fashionable. By 2015, the Belgium government were calling on the citizenry to save electricity by playing board games instead of computer games and to master the fine art of cooking food in one pan instead of several. That did not work, and the Belgium nuclear plants got a ten-year reprieve.
“They kept changing the timeline without changing the law,” said Van De Perre.
There’s nothing nuclear power plant operators hate quite as much as uncertainty, and France’s Engie, the operator for all the Belgian plants through their subsidiary Electrabel, was no exception. Bashed by the government and the public and unable to make a reliable forecast, Engie eventually had enough Belgium’s ‘kick the can down the road’ approach
“They’ve mentally checked out and decided that nuclear is not in their future,” said Van De Perre.
I’m honestly quite curious where the Belgium shutdown efforts would be at right now in an alternate timeline. But in this one, world events intervened. The enemies of nuclear finally saw their chance to kill the plants for good in 2020, when gas prices plunged with COVID-19, but the crash was followed by a spike in gas prices, followed by the Ukrainian crisis that finally forced the Greens to concede.
“After Ukraine, Tinne realized her plan to close everything will not work,” said Paul Bossens, the director for Stand Up for Nuclear Belgium, “when she went to Engie, they said to her ‘well we told you last year to decide.’”
“Tinne” is Belgium energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten, a lawyer who had to do a U-turn on her anti-nuclear stance.
“She was a gas energy consultant who was committed to closing all the plants,” said Bossens, “But all that changed with the first day of the war.”
Just as Tinne changed her mind on nuclear, there was a sudden, accelerated change in public opinion in Belgium regarding nuclear power. “Everybody started to wonder if nuclear is really that bad. There are limitations to renewables, going to 100% renewable is impossible,” said Bossens.
Did the change come too late? Yes and no. When Tinne went to Engie, they only agreed to save the two most recent reactors, Doel 4 and Tihange 3, out of the seven. The barrier is not technical, in the opinion of Bossens. But after years of being bashed and jerked around by the government, Engie was finally negotiating from a position of strength and can strike the deal that it wants.
Standing up for Tihange 2
No matter what the reason, Tihange 2 is set to close shortly. Stand Up for Belgium and 14 other organizations will be there to witness the closure and to call for the plant to be ‘mothballed’ rather than go into decommissioning. When Tihange 2 powers down on January 31st, the process would be no different than powering down for any other kind of routine maintenance. It’s what happens afterwards that would determine the reactor’s fate.
The plant, argues Bossens and Van De Perre, can be safely maintained in a powered-down condition for months or even years awaiting possible future urgent need — not outside of the realm of possibility given Europe’s recent energy woes. But once the plant goes down the path of decommissioning, marked by washing the interior of the reactor and its pipings with strong acid, then the reactor can no longer be bought back to working order without great difficulty.
It’s a long shot, admits Bossens.
“Technically, all seven can be extended,” he said, “but it is already a very big step to keep the two.”
You mentioned some of the differences between "mothballing" and decommissioning which I find interesting. Would the topic of refurbishment vs mothballing vs decommissioning be of interest to you to write about? Looking at each option that a nuclear plant comes to as it reaches its initial lifespan in regards to how each pathway results in different additions of cost/electricity generation/CO2 savings/etc? I also don't know much about what goes into refurbishment, mothballing, or decommissioning and would be interested in learning what things happen in each.
Thanks for your work, keep it up!
Super piece, Angelica!
"They kept changing the timeline without changing the law”. Expect this to be the case with Diablo Canyon (CA), the remaining German reactors, and states like CA in terms of "zero emissions/100% renewable" electricity and 100% EVs by deadlines set. Laws will continue to mandate that which cannot be achieved. The date of the non-achievement will simply be moved.
"But after years of being bashed and jerked around by the government," also explains how global capital expenditures on oil/gas drilling plunged by around 50% from 2014 to 2021.
We've wondered and asked where advanced nations would be displacing all coal and natural gas for electricity generation had they spent $3 - $5 TRILLION since 1997 (Kyoto) on advanced nuclear. See here: https://envmental.substack.com/p/sacrificing-humanity-on-the-green