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Europe

Dangerous neighbors: German-Belgian nuclear agreement doesn't fix problem

Can an agreement allay fears of a looming nuclear accident in Belgium? Two of its power stations, situated very close to Germany, are causing considerable alarm.

Doel 3 and Tihange 2 are the names of the nuclear power stations that have got many people living along Germany's border with Belgium very worried indeed. These reactor blocks belong to power stations that were first connected to the grid more than 40 years ago.

Over the years, the reactor pressure vessels have sustained damage. Germany's environment minister, Barbara Hendricks (SPD), gives a forthright response when asked about the two reactors. "We know that there are a lot of hairline cracks in the reactor pressure vessels," she says. It sounds very alarming.

Doel 3 and Tihange 2 are very close to the German-Belgian border. Doel, near Antwerp, is just 150 kilometers (93 miles) away; it's only 60 kilometers to Tihange, near Liege. This is why Hendricks called on Belgium as early as last April to shut down both reactor blocks until they had been made safe. The Belgian government refused. It doesn't deem its nuclear power plants to be a risk. This attitude has a lot to do with the fact that more than half of Belgium's power is supplied by nuclear energy.

'We can't change that'

At least an agreement has been reached. Environment minister Hendricks and Belgium's minister of the interior, Jan Jambon, have signed a new German-Belgian agreement to cooperate on nuclear safety. But what is it worth? The agreement is a compromise. The German side would have much preferred Belgium to shut down the damaged nuclear reactors immediately, but Brussels had little sympathy with Germany's efforts to intervene. Whether or not reactors are shut down, and how long for, remains a national issue. "We can't change that," said Barbara Hendricks – and this was the German government's dilemma before the agreement was even signed.

In it, both countries jointly declare that they will, in future, keep each other better informed about the condition of their nuclear reactors. A commission is to be set up and will meet regularly. The German states bordering Belgium (North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate) will also sit at the table. The idea is that it will also be possible for German experts to see what's going on in the disputed reactors. This kind of agreement has already been in place for a long time with other neighboring countries, like France.

'Information won't protect us from a meltdown'

Hendricks, however, is already lowering expectations: "We are not creating greater security with this commission," she has said. Which is also why observers such as the Greenpeace energy expert Susanne Neubronner described the agreement as "pure politics of symbolism" and said it didn't go far enough.

Belgien Umweltministerin Barbara Hendricks und Vize-Premierminister Jan Jambon (picture-alliance/dpa/BELGA/T. Roge)

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks and Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon

"Better exchange of information is basically just an alibi to make worried citizens believe the reactors are safe," Neubronner told DW. "But information won't protect us from a meltdown. The environment minister shouldn't allow herself to be fobbed off with an agreement. She should put pressure on the Belgian government to significantly improve the safety of the Belgian nuclear reactors. The only way to prevent the risk of a meltdown is the immediate shutdown of both reactors."

Neubronner says the situation at both nuclear sites in Belgium is extremely alarming. "The number of incidents reported at the plants has risen dramatically. Stresses, such as a thermal shock, could enlarge the cracks in the reactor pressure vessels, which would drastically increase the danger of the pressure vessel bursting," she says. "This would lead to a reactor core meltdown. There's a risk of an MCA [maximum credible accident]."

North Rhine-Westphalia would be 'more or less' affected

A study has shown that, in the event of a nuclear accident in Tihange, the city of Aachen and the surrounding region could be severely irradiated. Just a few weeks ago, Professor Wolfgang Renneberg from the Institute of Safety and Risk Sciences at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna calculated that "if an accident were to happen, there is a 10 percent likelihood that Aachen would become uninhabitable." The whole of North Rhine-Westphalia would be "more or less" affected.

Belgien Atomkraftwerk Doel (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg)

Belgian nuclear reactor Doel

No wonder, then, that when DW spoke to the NRW environment ministry, which is headed by Green politician Johannes Remmel, it demanded an immediate shutdown – "also on account of the inadequacies – indeed, sloppiness – that have recently come to light in the management organization and security management." The NRW environment ministry hopes that "various different safety philosophies" will be on the new commission's agenda.

Critics from Greenpeace also want more from the German government than just the signing of an agreement. Greenpeace energy expert Susanne Neubronner comments: "Ms. Hendricks' politics are two-faced. Ostensibly, she's committed to increasing safety for the German people. But at the same time her ministry is still allowing the transport of fuel elements from Germany to the endangered Doel reactor. The only consistent policy would be to immediately halt the supply of fuel elements from Germany to Belgian nuclear reactors."