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If you can't beat them, join them

Dave Keating
June 7, 2017

Last year, Germany asked neighboring Belgium to close aging nuclear stations near its border over safety concerns. Now Berlin is selling fuel to the plants and collaborating on technical details. What's going on?

Belgien Doel Atomkraftwerk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Ghani

Nuclear power experts are meeting in Bonn this week to discuss a sensitive issue: potentially unsafe Belgian nuclear reactors that sit uncomfortably close to the German border.

Not everyone is happy about the meeting. Outside the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Bonn, where the meeting is taking place, anti-nuclear campaigners are holding a spontaneous vigil protesting the talks. Herbert Hoting from the group AntiAtomBonn calls them a "farce."

"The people in charge in Belgium cannot be convinced," he said.

The talks are the first meeting of the Belgian-German Nuclear Commission, formed in December to try to resolve the ongoing dispute between the two countries over the safety of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors.

The power stations to which they are connected are more than 40 years old, and cracks have been discovered in recent years that many believe makes them potentially dangerous. Barbara Hendricks, Germany's environment minister, asked Belgium to shut down both reactor blocks in 2016 until they could be made safe. To date, both reactors are still running.

Tihange lies only 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from the German border, while Doel (pictured above) is 150 kilometers away, near Antwerp. Germans living in the area close to this border have been exerting pressure on the government to force Belgium to shut down the reactors.

Infographic nuclear plants in Belgium

Various groups have sprung up in the cities near the border, such as Münsterland Gegen Atomanlagen (Münsterland Against Nuclear Plants) and the Aachener Aktionsbündnis Gegen Atomenergie (Aachen Action Alliance Against Atomic Energy). The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has prepared iodine tablets for its population in the case of a Belgian nuclear accident.

The problem is that energy generation is an entirely national competence, and cannot be influenced by the European Union. As a result, there is nothing Germany can do about nuclear reactors in Belgium. Faced with pressure from activists, the German government created the commission with Belgium in December. This week is the first meeting of nuclear experts from both countries, and the activists are keen to show they're not fans of the new body.

"It's just an exchange of information, not binding results," said Anika Limbach from AntiAtomBonn. "The framework doesn't provide for any citizen participation, or a full exchange of documents. In our opinion, the meeting is no more than an alibi."

The activists are particularly incensed that, after the commission was formed, it was revealed that Germany has agreed to sell nuclear fuel elements to Belgium for use at the two reactors. 

Read more: Germany approves sale of nuclear fuel elements to Belgian reactors

A spokesperson for the German Environment Ministry told DW that the meetings, which will take place twice a year, are to facilitate the exchange of technical expertise rather than to discuss high-level political issues. She pointed out that Germany has a similar expert commission with France.

Cultural conflict

Germany has long had a complicated relationship with nuclear power, with a strong anti-nuclear movement starting in the 1970s. Popular opinion against nuclear power in Germany is so high that in 2011, following the Fukushima nuclear accident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the decision to phase out all German nuclear power by 2022.

To the west, nuclear power in France and Belgium has been more accepted, partly because it provides a much larger share of those countries' power supplies. In Belgium, it provides 52 percent of the country's electricity, and a whopping 72 percent in France, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. In 2011, nuclear accounted for just 18 percent of Germany's electricity.

In France, the topic of phasing out nuclear power was hotly debated during the recent presidential election campaign, and Belgium has a theoretical phaseout date of 2025. Few expect Belgium to honor that pledge, however, given that all intermediate deadlines have been missed.

The issue of nuclear power is dividing Europe, as some countries such as the UK seek to embrace nuclear as a low-carbon solution to climate change, while others such as Germany want to eliminate it completely. But as the issue of nuclear safety respects no borders, this is causing tensions. 

Belgien Umweltministerin Barbara Hendricks und Vize-Premierminister Jan Jambon
Hendricks (left) and Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon agreed on the joint commission in DecemberImage: picture-alliance/dpa/BELGA/T. Roge

Heinz Smital, a campaigner with Greenpeace Germany, told DW that even though only Belgium can make a decision on the reactors, there is more the German government could be doing to pressure its neighbors.

The nuclear commission, he believes, is sending a signal of acquiescence.

"The German government could be clearer in how important Belgium's nuclear phaseout is, because there are lots of models on how a nuclear cloud could affect large parts of Germany," he told DW.

"Germany is not playing all the cards it could. The government of Austria is taking legal steps against new nuclear constructions in the UK and other countries. I would like to see the German government being more effective in taking concrete steps to get rid of the nuclear threat."

Fruitful talks, or a fig leaf?

In their December agreement, Germany and Belgium both jointly declared that they will, in future, keep each other better informed about the condition of their nuclear reactors. Representatives from 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.

Environment Minister Hendricks has been keen to downplay expectations, saying in December that "we are not creating greater security with this commission." But she said Germany cannot dictate energy decisions to Belgium, and that the Belgian-German commission is the next best option. At least that way, Germany can be part of a solution.

But Greenpeace's Smital believes the stakes are too high to be satisfied with mere words. "Yes, it's necessary to have all the detailed information at an expert level," he said. "But this will not help to avoid a nuclear accident. The objective should only be to have a shutdown."

Belgium: Nuclear power reloaded