1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

With nukes, 'there's always something'

Martin Kuebler, BrusselsAugust 14, 2015

After yet another incident at one of Belgium's two nuclear power plants, DW spoke to Greenpeace expert Rianne Teule to assess the risk. She worries that safety is not being taken seriously enough.

Atomkraftwerk Tihange in Belgien
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Fahy

Early Thursday morning, the Tihange 3 nuclear reactor was shut down because of an "unplanned unavailability," according to utility company GDF Suez.

The shutdown is the latest in a string of minor technical incidents at the plant since last July, including two minor fires, some of which have been attributed to human error. The incidents, the age of the plant - the oldest reactor dates to 1975 - and cracks that were discovered in the walls of Belgian reactors earlier this year have raised concerns over the safety of the country's nuclear power supply.

DW spoke to Rianne Teule, campaign director with Greenpeace Belgium, about the state of Belgium's nuclear industry and the future of the renewables sector.

DW: What can you tell me about this week's technical incident at Tihange?

Rianne Teule: It's relatively normal in any reactor that there's a scram [emergency shutdown] caused by some kind of technical issue; that should not be a problem. But, last week, four workers were suspended [for security lapses by the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control]. In combination with the scram this week, that of course makes you think something more is going on, if the two things are related. Of course, Electrobel, the Tihange operator, has said that they aren't related, that everything is normal. But [the incident] did cause FANC to pay more attention.

There have been quite a few minor incidents at Tihange in recent months.

There's always something. And the safety culture being somewhat questionable, there's the risk that these small incidents turn into something bigger.

How significant is that risk?

The Doel reactor, which is 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Antwerp, is in the harbor. An accident there would basically stop all activity in the harbor - an important part of the Belgian economy.

Infografik Atomkraftwerke in Belgien Englisch
Doel 3 and Tihange 2 are currently shut down for repairs, but are scheduled to reopen in November

How prepared is Belgium for a nuclear emergency similar to what happened in Fukushima?

The government is adapting its emergency plans at the moment. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the Fukushima accident in terms of emergency planning, and the government says it will incorporate some of those lessons. But the disaster preparedness zones around the Doel nuclear power plant extend 10 kilometers. And, based on Fukushima, you would need at least 30 kilometers - in Fukushima, they have evacuated areas up to 50 kilometers away.

If the zone around Doel is extended to, for example, 20 kilometers, it would include Antwerp, which has a large population of half a million people. In fact, the whole of Belgium would have to be considered an emergency preparedness zone because it's not only Doel and Tihange. There are also all the reactors around Belgium, over the border in France and the Netherlands.

Following this week's incident, Flemish politician Johan Vande Lanotte called on the FANC to provide an explanation to Parliament, pointing out that "if [Belgium's] renewable energy sector had so many problems, the government would have shut it down long ago."

Yes, that's true. Belgium decided to phase out nuclear energy a long time ago, in 2003. They set a maximum lifetime of 40 years per reactor, which meant that the first reactors would shut down in 2015. But the government didn't actually do anything to prepare for the phaseout of nuclear. They didn't invest enough in renewables to compensate for the nuclear shutdown, and that was used as an argument in 2014 to extend the lifetime of Tihange 1 by 10 years, and it's being used as an argument now to extend the lifetimes of Doel 1 and 2. Tihange 1 was supposed to close in October this year.

The new right-wing government, and especially (Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development Minister) Marie-Christine Marghem is very much in support of the nuclear industry. And that's why this extension was agreed for Doel 1 and 2. It was basically pushed through by her. ... She said to it was needed to secure the electricity supply for the next two winters.

And, actually, there are alternatives. If we focus on the demand side management for the next two winters, and really prepare, we can adapt our demand in certain periods and, depending on weather and how much is imported from other countries, we can prevent any blackouts. But the minister isn't actually doing anything to prepare for that.

What's the status of renewable energy in Belgium?

Unfortunately, it's progressing very slowly. Currently it's about 13 percent of electricity supply - wind, solar and biomass. The current government, when they talk about renewables, they talk primarily about biomass. They are also interested in offshore wind farms, but that's more expensive. There is a lot of public opposition to onshore wind farms, due to prejudices more than anything else - but the government isn't doing anything to change that.

Solar has a bit of a negative image because the previous government had a lot of support mechanisms for solar, which meant there was a large growth. But it wasn't actually managed very well, which meant that the current government ended up with a large gap in their budget giving solar a bad image. So, renewable energy just doesn't get the governmental support.

Belgien Internationaler Protest gegen Atomkraft
Protesters gathered in Brussels earlier this yearImage: DW/G. Rueter

Belgium is also a very complicated country politically. While the nuclear energy sector is controlled by the federal government, renewable energy is controlled by the regional governments. There should be some kind of overarching energy vision managed by the federal government, but that doesn't exist at the moment.

And, while these nuclear reactors stay operational, investment in other electricity supplies is more difficult because it's not sure there will be space on the market and on the grid. What we would need is a gradual shutdown of nuclear, and simultaneously a gradual increase of renewables. Right now, it's too risky for investors in renewables. There are no feed-in tariffs or priority access of renewables to the grid. There's nothings like that. In Germany, that was the main incentive to invest in renewables.

You don't sound too optimistic.

With the current governments, I am not very optimistic indeed. Greenpeace with other NGOs recently organized a conference about the Energiewende (energy transition) in Germany. And a similar energy transition should happen in Belgium. We want to push the government to set better renewable energy targets. In Belgium, there is no agreement yet about how to implement the agreed targets when it comes to climate change made a few years ago, because the governments of the different regions cannot agree, especially concerning burden sharing, how much to invest in each region and financial compensation. They don't know where they're going. That's the problem.

Rianne Teule is a nuclear radiation expert with Greenpeace International in Belgium.