While the disconnection of the Doel nuclear power plant has been scheduled since 2003, several voices have called for its extension in a context of soaring energy prices.
Belgium is closing a first reactor on Friday, September 23 as part of its planned nuclear phase-out, but the decision is raising doubts and controversy in the midst of soaring energy prices against a backdrop of war in Ukraine.
The operator Engie will shut down around 9 p.m. (7 p.m. GMT) one of the four reactors of the Doel nuclear power plant, located in the port of Antwerp (north) on the Scheldt. It could alone produce up to 10% of the country’s electricity. The disconnection of the 40-year-old Doel 3 reactor has been prepared for a long time. It is part of the Belgian nuclear exit plan approved in 2003, which originally provided for the shutdown by 2025 of the seven reactors which provide about half of the country’s needs.
As the deadlines approach, however, doubt seems to be winning over the federal government, which is divided on the issue while rising energy costs are putting a strain on households and businesses. In March, he had already with difficulty agreed to extend until 2036 two of the seven nuclear reactors. For the future, Belgium is not closing the door to new generation nuclear power. But the Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden (Flemish Christian Democrat) set fire to the powder last week by asking the Belgian nuclear safety authority (AFCN) if it would be possible to postpone the dismantling operation of Doel 3 in case a relaunch of the reactor was planned later…
“Not a sign of good governance”
Deputy Green Prime Minister Petra De Sutter said to herself “shocked” by this questioning of the calendar “a few days before the cessation of operations”. And Engie responded with a barrage. “The reactor will be shut down permanently and is therefore not intended to restart”, explained to AFP a spokeswoman for the operator who stressed that he had not received any request from the government to this effect. For its part, the AFCN has not officially closed any doors but replied to Annelies Verlinden that a decision “very late” extension of the reactor was not “not a sign of good governance” and she couldn’t “not guarantee that a late and unprepared scenario does not pose a risk to nuclear security”. Pro-nuclears were to demonstrate in Doel in the morning to demand the maintenance of the reactor “in operational condition”.
In theory, a restart of the reactor would not be impossible. After the shutdown on Friday evening, the preparatory work will last about five years before the dismantling of the reactor. “No technically irreversible operation occurs during this first phase”, acknowledged the director of the power plant Peter Moens. But he felt that a postponement or reversal of the process would not “neither wise nor advised” for technical and operational reasons, citing in particular the lack of fuel and personnel.
The Belgian debate echoes that of Germany, where conservative and liberal politicians are calling for the country’s last three nuclear reactors to be extended beyond the end of 2022, the date of their scheduled shutdown. For now, Berlin has simply agreed to keep two reactors on standby until spring 2023 to deal with possible emergencies. In Belgium, the electricity transmission system operator Elia has indicated that it does not expect any supply risks linked to this “stop that was planned”. “We have enough production capacity available to meet demand”a spokesperson told AFP.
The boom in renewable energy, solar and wind, including offshore, has enabled the country to achieve record exports in 2021. Gas-fired power plants accounted for a quarter of the energy mix. Greenpeace claims that “the closure of Doel 3 does not pose any problem for the security of supply and has no significant impact on the price of electricity”. The French-speaking liberals of the Reform Movement (MR), however, fear shortages. “With the risk of a blackout in France this winter, with Germany leaving nuclear power but which has run out of gas, we know that we are going to have great difficulties”, warned the former Minister (MR) of Energy Marie-Christine Marghem. She called for the repeal of the nuclear exit law which she considers “has been”.