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Worries about nuclear safety in Belgium

Andrea Rönsberg, BrusselsJanuary 18, 2016

Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are all concerned about the re-starting of Belgian nuclear reactors. The government there promises better communication, but seems to feel little urgency to act.

Belgium's Tihange nuclear site
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Lalmand

One and a half hours by car – that's how long it takes to drive from the site of Belgium's nuclear reactors at Tihange to neighboring Luxembourg. One and a half hours, or 160 kilometers (100 miles), that's not enough to put the mind of Luxembourg's state secretary for infrastructure at ease. Which is why Camille Gira, together with parliamentarians and nuclear safety and health experts, came to Brussels on Monday, to meet Belgium's interior minister, Jan Jambon, for an "exchange of views."

"We had a couple of questions concerning the safety of Tihange 2," spokesman Olaf Münichsdorfer told DW, "and we wanted to remind our Belgian counterparts that our citizens are also at risk should there be a nuclear accident there."

Cracks prompted temporary shut-down

The Tihange 2 reactor had been shut down since March, 2014, following the discovery of tiny cracks in the reactor's pressure vessel.

But in November 2015, the Belgian nuclear authority saw "no obstacle" to restarting the reactor, which became operational again at the end of December 2015.

A recent study commissioned by the Green party group in the European parliament, on the other hand, said the steel used in the pressure vessels was of such poor quality that – had this been known at the time of licensing- the reactor would never have been allowed to start operations.

"How is it then possible to license the continuation of the power plants now that we are aware of all these problems," wondered the Greens EU parliament co-president Rebecca Harms.

A question which was also on the minds of Luxembourg's visiting delegation on Monday. "It seems to us that it is still not quite clear where these cracks come from," said Münichsdorfer, adding that while the meeting had been constructive, not all questions had been answered.

Rebecca Harms of the Greens in the European Parliament
Rebecca Harms of the Greens wonders how Tihange 2 could have been allowed to restartImage: picture alliance/Wiktor Dabkowski

Aachen's citizens worried

Aside from raising worries in Luxembourg, re-starting the Tihange 2 reactor has sparked great concern in neighboring Germany. With the city of Aachen a mere 70 kilometers from Tihange, some 100,000 citizens in the region had signed a petition initiated by anti-nuclear activists to stop the reactor from going on the grid again – to no avail. Aachen's authorities are set to brief the public about the current situation, as well as about emergency plans, later this month.

At a recent session of the city's environment committee, fire department chief Jürgen Wolff told representatives that some emergency steps mandated by the state government would not work. It would, for instance, take definitely more than 24 hours, "maybe more than 32 or 48 hours" to distribute iodine pills to the population, Wolff said according to the local newspaper Aachener Zeitung.

In case of a nuclear accident, it is advised to take highly-dosed iodine pills as soon as possible, allowing the thyroid gland to store this iodine rather than the radioactively contaminated iodine that people would likely inhale following a nuclear emergency.

Concern in the Netherlands

For their part, citizens in neighboring Netherlands are also worried about another nuclear site called Doel. Same as at the Tihange 2 reactor, tiny cracks have also been found at the Doel 3 reactor's pressure vessel, causing it to be taken off the grid until its restart shortly before the end of the year.

Only a short while later, the plant was closed again for a few days, after a water leak.

The Doel nuclear site near Antwerp
Looks picturesque at first sight -but the Doel nuclear site is situated close to the city and port of Antwerp, meaning a nuclear accident would directly affect 1.5 million peopleImage: Reuters

The Doel site is also home to Belgium's oldest reactor, Doel 1, which had been shut down in February 2015, following its 40th anniversary. But the government then decided to extend the lives of Doel 1 and Doel 2 by another 10 years.

Widespread concern has prompted the Dutch minister for infrastructure, Melanie Schultz, to schedule a visit to Doel this Wednesday, together with Belgian Interior Minister Jambon, accompanied by inspectors from the Dutch nuclear authority.

"Obviously, it is the Belgian inspectors who are in charge, and our inspectors will be observing rather than doing the actual work," said ministry spokeswoman Anne van Pinxteren, adding that minister Schultz would summarize the results of her visit in a letter to parliament.

The Belgian interior ministry, which is in charge of nuclear safety as well, said it wanted to improve communication with neighboring countries on the subject, but also stressed Belgium was not handing over control of its nuclear sites to its neighbors.

Belgian nuclear authority suggests changes to emergency plan

In Belgium itself, the scientific council of the nuclear authority - known by the initials of its Flemish name, 'FANC' – last Friday issued a report proposing to revise existing nuclear emergency plans.

One recommendation is to distribute iodine pills to the entire Belgian population. Current plans limit the distribution of such pills to people living within a 20-kilometer-radius of nuclear sites.

The scientific body also recommends extending the safety zone around nuclear sites. Then, people living within 20 instead of 10 kilometers from a nuclear site would have to remain in their homes for 24 hours, with doors and windows closed.

Already in March, 2015, Belgium's National Health Council (CSS) had recommended distributing at no cost iodine pills to people living within a radius of 100 kilometers of nuclear plants.

graphic on nuclear sites in Belgium
Shut down one day, restarted the next: This graphic from the end of 2015 shows Doel 1 as inactive following an accident in the non-nuclear part of the reactor, but it was restarted a few days later.

"We will take all these recommendations into consideration and propose a new emergency plan in the course of this year," a spokeswoman for minister Jambon said according to the Belgian Le Soir newspaper.

Entanglements between politics, industry, and oversight

But, on the whole, the Belgian government seems rather unfazed by the security concerns raised by its neighbors.

According to Jan Vande Putte of Greenpeace Belgium, that has to do with the fact that Belgium's main utilities provider, Electrabel, still has a strong influence over politicians, especially in the country's French speaking region of Wallonia – an influence dating back to the times when the state-owned utilities provider was the only player in the country's energy market.

"This influence has declined over the past years, but it's still there," says Vande Putte. And, he adds, there is another interdependency to take into account: that between the nuclear authority and the nuclear sector.

Prior to heading up the FANC nuclear regulatory authority, Jan Bens moved up the career ladder at Electrabel, including a leading function at the Doel nuclear site. His predecessor at FANC, Willy de Roovere, had spent eleven years of his work life as Doel's managing director.

For Vande Putte, this kind of entanglements make it difficult for the nuclear authority to shut down reactors for safety reasons.

"You would then have to recognize that you were part of a team that made mistakes," Vande Putte said.

Neighbors insist on having questions answered

But though that may be a tricky situation for Belgian politicians and oversight authorities, it appears that Belgium's neighbors are not willing to let the issue slide.

Early last week, experts of Germany's environment ministry presented the FANC with a list of 15 open questions concerning the security of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors.

Back in Luxembourg, Olaf Münichsdorfer of the environment ministry also vowed to keep up the pressure.

"We had a constructive meeting, but not all our questions were answered," said Münichsdorfer.