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Lawsuits against Belgian nuclear reactors

Andrea Rönsberg, Brussels
February 8, 2016

Cracked pressure vessels haven't kept Belgium from restarting two nuclear reactors that many experts consider unsafe. Now, a lawsuit contesting that decision is underway.

The nuclear plant at Tihange, Belgium
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Fahy

They are not safe: That is the basic argument brought forth by the Brussels-based lawyers Pierre and Maxime Chome on behalf of the NGO Nucleaire Stop Kernenergie, which is seeking to shut down two nuclear reactors in Belgium.

Last year, authorities turned off the reactors Doel 3, near Antwerp, and Tihange 2, close to the border with Germany, after tiny cracks were found in their pressure vessels. However, the reactors were restarted at the end of 2015, when Belgium's nuclear authority assessed that they were safe after all.

Public opposition to that decision has been building, and various legal actions have been launched. The German city and district of Aachen is planning to take its case to Belgium's Constitutional Court. The Chomes are pursuing a different track and have taken Electrabel, the utilities operator running Doel 3 and Tihange 2, to court in Brussels. The trial is now adjourned, but a verdict is expected within a month. DW got some background from the lawyers after they appeared in court Monday.

DW: What are the legal grounds on which you are demanding that the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors be stopped again?

Since 1993, Belgian law grants environmental NGOs that meet certain requirements the right to demand that the court find a solution for situations that create environmental dangers.

With regard to the reactors Doel 3 and Tihange 2, many scientists are saying that there is a risk of a nuclear accident - with all the consequences that would entail for the population - because of the cracks found in the pressure vessels. So we are asking the court to stop operations of these reactors or alternatively to appoint a panel of experts to re-examine the scientific evidence.

What were some of the arguments you had to refute today in court?

Electrabel is arguing that this is a political issue. But that is not the case, because the decision to restart the two reactors was not a political one. The minister in charge of nuclear safety, Interior Minister Jan Jambon, did not really make a political decision: He merely deferred to the assessment of the nuclear authority FANC (Federal Agency for Nuclear Contol).

FANC reported that it was safe to restart the reactors - but you are questioning the objectivity of that assessment, as well as the body's independence in general.

In Belgium we say that the nuclear industry is like a village: Everybody knows everybody, and everybody has worked in different parts of the industry at different times. For instance, a few years ago, the present director of the FANC was director at one of the reactors at the Doel nuclear site.

We also argue that the authorization to restart the two reactors lacks a sound scientific basis because dissenting opinions among the scientists were not duly taken into account.

Belgium's nuclear sites

Greenpeace and other organizations are contesting another controversial decision with regard to Belgium's nuclear energy: that of extending the life spans of Belgium's oldest reactors by another 10 years. Why is your lawsuit not addressing that issue?

Because, as we explained to the judge, we don't see it as our job to make a case for or against nuclear energy in general. It is also not our job to contest a political decision of when or even whether Belgium should get out of nuclear energy. Personally, we have nothing against nuclear energy.

But, when you read the scientific studies done about the safety of these two reactors, you can't help but come to the conclusion that these are very dangerous machines that have become operational again purely out of commercial interests. So, all that we are saying is that these dangerous machines have to be stopped.

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