Belgian nuclear phase out an 'irreversible loss', PM told

23 August 2021

An open letter to the prime minister of Belgium, Alexander De Croo, has called for the country's anti-nuclear policies to be re-evaluated and for Belgium's nuclear facilities and skills to be positively applied in an effort to avert climate change. Writing in the major newspaper La Libre, a group of young engineers called Horizon 238 appealed to De Croo: "Our country is about to make a decision that will irreversibly shape its energy landscape for decades to come, and which will undoubtedly become one of the most significant chapters of your government's legacy."

The Doel plant (Image: Electrabel)

"The government's decision to phase out nuclear energy - the largest source of low-carbon energy in Belgium - and to finance new fossil gas power plants," they said, is "paradoxical and counterproductive" given that Belgium is still 80% reliant on fossil fuels. "This decision would only reinforce the predominance of fossil fuels in the Belgian energy landscape."

"Let there be no mistake," wrote Horizon 238, "every new gas power plant subsidised on Belgian soil is an admitted act of pollution over several decades. The plants built in 2025 will remain in the energy landscape beyond 2050, the target date for carbon neutrality."

Instead of this course of action, Horizon 238 said, "Our wish, Mr Prime Minister, is that the political choices made 18 years ago be re-evaluated. We ask you to reconsider the nuclear phase-out. Because it is a low-carbon energy source, nuclear energy must be part of the energy transition roadmap."

Belgium's nuclear phase out is based on legislation passed in 2003 that prohibited the building of new reactors and the service lives of existing ones to 40 years. This has already been reconsidered once, in 2007, when a commission set up by the government concluded the closures would double the price of electricity and harm energy security. After a further report in 2009, the government prolonged the lives of some reactors so that the mandated shutdowns would not begin until 2025. Since March 2018, Belgium's policy has been to subsidise new gas power plants via capacity payments to directly replace most of the lost nuclear generation.

Belgium's coalition federal government, led by De Croo, signed an agreement on 30 September 2020 reaffirming its policy to phase out nuclear power in the country by 2025. Under the plan, Doel 3 and Tihange 2 will be shut down in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The newer Doel 4 and Tihange 3 will be shut down by 2025. However, the agreement also called for a report on Belgium's security of electricity supply and the impact on electricity prices of the nuclear phase-out and the planned implementation of a capacity market. If the report - to be completed by November this year - shows potential supply problems, the government would review plans to allow for the retention of 2 GWe of nuclear generation capacity. This could pave the way for a lifetime extension of Doel 4 and Tihange 3.

Horizon 238 said the closures would "result in the irreversible loss of an invaluable asset in the fight against climate change" and instead nuclear technology should be leveraged towards the task of mitigating carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.

"Belgium has the luxury of cutting-edge expertise in nuclear power acquired through 60 years of innovation, construction and operation," the letter states. "Our country has the opportunity to use this expertise to prepare its future more serenely. Today, the Myrrha [accelerator-driven research reactor] project developed at the Belgian nuclear research centre, is a research pioneer for recycling nuclear waste. In the near future, Belgian nuclear engineering could be at the forefront of the hydrogen economy and of the deep decarbonisation of industrial sectors that are difficult to electrify, leveraging new, more versatile and more sustainable nuclear technologies."

The letter concludes: "Because it is a low-carbon energy source, nuclear energy must be part of the energy transition roadmap. A ten-year extension of the most recent nuclear reactors goes beyond a reduction of our CO2 emissions. It is the prerequisite for maintaining the Belgian expertise necessary to benefit from technological revolutions that the nuclear sector still has to offer. Given today’s profoundly different context, the nuclear phase-out law passed in 2003 must be reviewed."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News