Belgium postpones nuclear phase-out

13 October 2009

The Belgian government has put back its plans to phase out nuclear power by ten years - but the country's nuclear energy producers will have to pay for the privilege of continued operation.

Paul Magnette
A back-handed compliment from
Paul Magnette? Nuclear power cannot
be readily replaced, but it can be
financially penalised and forced to 
support its rivals
The Council of Ministers' decision follows on from recent recommendations to government by a specially founded expert group, and was set out in an announcement published by climate and energy minister Paul Magnette.

A new nuclear agreement now demands the country's nuclear producers make an annual 'contribution' to the country's budget. The actual amount will be based on the recommendations of a newly established monitoring committee, but is expected to be €215-245 million ($320-364 million) per year over the period 2010-2014.


At the same time, the country will embark on a "rigorous and proactive" plan to improve energy efficiency and develop renewable energy to enable it to meet its European energy commitments by 2020. This will be funded in part by at least €500 million from nuclear power operators.   


Another part of the nuclear bargain includes GdF-Suez promising to maintain 13,000 jobs in energy efficiency and recycling, while training another 10,000 after 2015. In addition, one third of research and development at both GdF-Suez and Electrabel will have to be on efficiency as well as carbon capture and storage, according to the increasingly raw deal.


GDF-Suez, which owns and operates all seven of Belgium's nuclear reactors. said simply that it had "taken note" of the government's communication, saying it reflected "the constructive negotiations held with the government these last days" and confirming its willingness to finalize ongoing negotiations as quickly as possible.


World Nuclear Association director general John Ritch was more outspoken: "Having reached the wise conclusion that nuclear power is an unparalleled source of clean energy, the Belgian government has implemented that principle with stunning silliness, by forcing nuclear power to subsidize far less efficient clean-energy technologies."


Decision time for Germany? 
Germany's newly elected right-of-centre coalition government is said to be nearing a decision to overturn the country's nuclear phase-out policy.
According to reports from Spiegel Online and The New York Times, working documents circulated by the CDU/CSU to the FDP state that "atomic energy will be required as a bridge technology until affordable, climate-friendly energy sources are reliably available in sufficient quantities. The limit on German reactor lifetimes to 32 years is thus rescinded."

The topic is reported to be under discussion today, but any changes to the phase-out will come with financial penalties similar to those in Belgium.

The operating lives of Belgium's nuclear power plants was limited to 40 years in a 2003 government act, which would have seen the reactors at the Doel and Tihange nuclear power plants being phased out in between 2014 and 2025. Under that policy, which also prohibits the building of new nuclear plants in the country, Doel 1 and 2 and Tihange 1 would have been closed in 2014 and 2015 when they reached their 40th operating anniversaries. Nuclear power continues to provide more than half of the country's power. 

In deciding to postpone its nuclear phase-out plans, Belgium joins a growing number of European countries who are reconsidering earlier decisions to turn their backs on nuclear power. In all cases this has happened as the realities of finding an affordable way to secure their energy requirements while meeting emissions targets hit home.


Earlier this year a policy paper released by Sweden's government effectively announced plans to overturn legislation banning the construction of new nuclear power plants in the country, while Italy, the only European country actually to carry out a politically motivated nuclear power phase-out, has now formally ended its anti-nuclear policies with plans for a new reactor to be operating by 2020. Only Germany and Spain remain formally committed to their nuclear phase-out policies, although Germany is expected to announce a U-turn, following the recent general election and formation of a new governing coalition.