Belgian reactors learn their fate

05 July 2012

Nuclear plant operator Electrabel has reacted with dismay to a government announcement that two of the country's seven nuclear units will not get a previously promised ten-year licence extension.

Doel (Electrabel)
Two units at the Doel plant face closure in 2015 (Image: Electrabel)

Belgium's Council of Ministers has announced that Doel 1 and 2 - 433 MWe pressurized water reactors (PWRs) that have been in operation since the mid 1970s - are to close in 2015 after 40 years of operation. Tihange 1, a 962 MWe PWR that will also celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2015, is to be permitted to operate to 2025. This will "avoid the risk that 500,000 to 1 million inhabitants are plunged into darkness at times during the winter," according to a statement from the council.

Belgium has a total of seven operating nuclear units totalling 5943 MWe of generating capacity, which provide around 50% of the country's domestically produced electricity.

The future of the country's reactors has long been the subject of political debate. A 2003 government act limited the operating lives of Belgium's nuclear power plants to 40 years and prohibited the construction of new units, effectively meaning a nuclear phaseout beginning at Doel in 2014. In 2009 the government decided to allow the oldest plants to extend their operating lives by ten years - although demanding in return that nuclear power producers must pay an annual 'contribution' to the Belgian budget. However, Belgian elections in 2010 and a protracted process to form a new government meant the new proposals were never enshrined in law.

Of the remaining Belgian units, Doel 3 and Tihange 2 look set to close when they reach the end of their 40-year lives in 2022, with Doel 4 and Tihange 3 along with the life-extended Tihange 1 following suit in 2025. This would mean that over 5000 MWe of generating capacity would shut within a period of just three years.

The government has said that it intends to develop powers to intervene to maintain sufficient fossil fuel generation capacity to supply the country, and it will set up investment schemes to encourage flexible generation that can accommodate renewable energy after the nuclear power plants close.

According to GDF-Suez subsidiary Electrabel, operator of all of Belgium's reactors, the latest government announcement reneges on "firm commitments" made between the Belgian state and GDF-Suez in a 2009 memorandum of understanding. In a statement, Electrabel asserts that the 2009 memorandum is a binding agreement that includes the ten-year licence extension of all three units. The company noted that the government decision came only a day after the Belgian nuclear regulator, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), ruled favourably on a technical report from Electrabel on its planning in preparation for the ten-year extensions.

In its statement, Electrabel expressed its regret at the government's decision and said that until it received clearer information from the government it would continue under the terms of the 2003 law on the closure of the units. However, it is unclear whether the utility now plans to close the two Doel units and Tihange 1 by 2015, as specified by that law, or to continue operating Tihange 1 for an additional ten years as agreed in 2009.

"This decision ... does not contain enough precision or the necessary clarity to allow us to take a decision on the future of our nuclear activities in Belgium," an Electrabel spokeswoman told Reuters.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News