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Belgian nuclear reactors worry Germany

Andrea Rönsberg, BrusselsFebruary 1, 2016

Germany's environment minister wanted answers from the Belgian government regarding the safety of its nuclear reactors. But her visit shows that beyond voicing concerns, Germany has little influence on the matter.

Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon and German environment minister Barbara Hendricks
Belgium's Jan Jambon and Germany's Barbara Hendricks exchanged views - but their views remained divergent.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Dubrule

The list of Germany's questions over security at Belgium's seven nuclear reactors has received no immediate answers after environment minister Barbara Hendrick's visit to Brussels.

No, said Barbara Hendricks firmly, after her meeting with Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon and environment minister Marie-Christine Marghem, no, she was not disappointed.

"I didn't come here expecting to be told that Belgium would shut off certain reactors at a certain point in time," Hendricks said.

Some two weeks ago, the minister had submitted a set of questions to the Belgian nuclear authority regarding the safety of two of Belgium's seven reactors in particular. While the meeting in Brussels yielded no answers, there was a promise that they would be delivered in the coming weeks.

"We will then analyze them and discuss on a technical level whether these answers are sufficient," the minister said.

Little influence

With nuclear policies firmly in the hands of each EU-member state, Hendricks seemed fully aware of how little weight her country's concern about the safety of Belgian's ageing nuclear reactors carries in the neighboring European state.

A few weeks before her visit, delegations from Luxembourg and the Netherlands also met with Jambon, and were only more or less content with the outcome.

Hendricks said interior minister Jan Jambon, who is in charge of the nuclear reactors, was aware of German concerns, "but is convinced that the reactors are safe and that they wouldn't be operating if it was otherwise."

The Tihange nuclear site close to the town of Huy on the Maas river lies only about 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) from the German border, and citizens in the city of Aachen have been up in arms ever since reactor Tihange 2 was restarted in December 2015.

Between nuclear exit and lifetime-extensions

Belgium's two nuclear sites at Doel and Tihange supply half the country's electricity and whenever one or several of the seven reactors were shut down temporarily, it sparked fears of electricity black-outs.

grafic detailing Belgium's nuclear power plants
Seven nuclear reactors go a long way towards providing Belgium with power.

The nuclear sites are also the central element of Belgium's independence when it comes to energy: There are no power lines connecting Germany and Belgium, and with a transition to other sources of energies very much ongoing, Belgium would come to depend on neighboring France if its own nuclear power supplies dwindled.

In 2003 Belgium decided in principle to get out of nuclear energy and it limited the operating lives of its nuclear reactors to 40 years.

But while the country's oldest reactor, Doel 1, was duly shut down after the completion of its 40-year-life span in February 2015, parliament then passed a law enabling both Doel 1 and Doel 2 to operate for a further ten years. The lifetime of the Tihange 1 reactor was also extended, so that Belgium's nuclear exit has been put back to December 1, 2025.

On-again-off-again operation

Reactor number 3 at the Doel site near the Belgian city of Antwerp, close to the border with the Netherlands and Tihange 2 had been shut off in 2012 after tiny cracks had been found in the reactors' pressure vessels.

nuclear reactors at the Tihange site
The nuclear reactors at Tihange evoke fear among neighboring cities and communitiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Lalmand

But at the end of 2015, the Belgian nuclear authority FANC found that restarting the reactors did not involve any security risks: The justification brought forth by utilities operator Electrabel was convincing and the "structural integrity" of the reactors was not compromised by the cracks, the body concluded.

Since then, both reactors have been shut down temporarily, for example because of water leaks in the non-nuclear parts of the reactors.

Questions of safety

In a statement to the German parliament's environment committee, the environment ministry reported last week that the cracks constituted a "significant deviation" from the production quality required, and that existing margins of safety were being "significantly reduced."

"From a German perspective, it is doubtful to what extent this is reconcilable with basic requirements regarding the safety of nuclear reactors," the ministry report read.

A study commissioned by the group of Green parties in the European parliament and published in January came to a similar assessment.

"This study comes to the clear conclusion that there is no evidence how and when these cracks appeared in the reactor pressure vessels," Greens co-president Rebecca Harms commented.

Legal action by German districts

But despite these concerns, the scope for action appears limited.

Last week, the city and district of Aachen, along with other districts in the two German states of North Rhine Westphalia and Rhineland Palatinate, backed up by the Dutch cities of Maastricht, Heerlen, and Kerkrade, decided to file a legal complaint in Belgium against the operation of Tihange 2.

Belgian lawyer Tim Vermeir of the Brussels-based legal firm Blixt told DW he would be following a "two-step approach," with his first step being to file a suit with the country's highest administrative court "as soon as possible."

"We will be looking at how the procedural side of the authorization to re-start Tihange 2 was granted," Vermeir said.

A court decision, Vermeir said, could not be expected "before the end of this year," adding that opposition would be "fierce."

While Minister Hendricks said that while she wasn't going to discourage Aachen and the other communities from pursuing legal action, she did not see a basis for any such steps on the part of the federal government.

EU sees no grounds for action

Others, most prominently the environment minister of North Rhine Westphalia, Johannes Remmel, have called on Hendricks to push for action on the EU level and to put pressure on the European Commission to intervene.

Belgium: Nuclear power reloaded

A European directive on nuclear safety is in fact in place but it does little more than require member states to have an "independent, competent, regulatory authority endowed with adequate powers and resources."

With regard to the security concerns voiced by Germany and other states neighboring Belgium, such as the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the European Commission says there is no indication Belgium is violating the nuclear safety directive.

And federal minister Hendricks said she saw no advantage in EU law providing a basis for nuclear safety. "Personally, I would be worried that in that case, we would have to soften the nuclear safety standards we have in Germany."