Belgium’s nuclear power plants are safe – say the government and the operator. But many in the border region complain of serious shortcomings at Tihange and Doel.
Full of hairline cracks: the Belgian nuclear power plant Tihange Photo: dpa
Julie Vandegaar is smiling, although there is no reason for her police visit to the Eupen commissariat to be happy. She wants to file charges against the Belgian state and the Tihange and Doel nuclear power plants. "It’s about my future, I want to be able to continue living here in the region," says the 19-year-old.
Beate Haupt from Aachen has a similar view: "I experienced Chernobyl, I experienced Fukushima. Maybe I won’t see Tihange or Doel anymore, but what about my daughter and my grandchildren?" According to the organizer, about a hundred people are lining up in the backyard – significantly more than in Tongeren or Namur, where the "Stop Tihange" alliance has also called for the action.
For years, the two nuclear power plants Tihange near Liège and Doel shortly before the Dutch border have been criticized because of thousands of hairline cracks on the containers. In 2003, the Belgian government decided to phase out nuclear power under pressure from the Green Party. But since the party is no longer in the coalition, little has happened. At the beginning of April, the Belgian government confirmed that all seven nuclear reactors would be shut down by 2025 at the latest.
But the largest party in parliament, the N-VA, is resisting this. "Shutting down all nuclear power plants by 2025 will cost Belgians between 1 and 1.8 billion euros extra a year," says Andries Gryffroy, a member of the Flemish Parliament. He touts Tihange and Doel for "affordability, energy security, sustainability."
Internationally recognized safety benchmarks violated
Fifteen years after the law was passed, the Greens are now meek. They have no answer to the N-VA’s arguments, despite multiple requests. The Greens speak of opinion polls, which are supposed to show that a majority of Belgians are in favor of an early nuclear phase-out. However, they do not provide any details when asked.
Anti-nuclear activists gather to press charges against the Tihange and Doel nuclear power plants Photo: dpa
Compared to the Germans, Belgians are more relaxed about their nuclear power plants and their shortcomings – with the exception of a few smaller groups. At the end of February, for example, the city council in Liège made headlines when it almost unanimously approved a motion for the immediate closure of Tihange 2 and Doel 3.
Meanwhile, border regions and international organizations continue to mobilize against the reactors. Tihange 2 violates internationally recognized safety standards, the nuclear experts’ network Inrag recently said. The origin of the cracks in the reactor pressure vessel has not been clarified with sufficient certainty, it said. "A reactor vessel must not break. If it breaks, there are no safety systems to catch it," said Wolfgang Renneberg, former head of the reactor safety department at the German Environment Ministry.
Pressure from Germany
In early February, the Belgian nuclear regulator (FANC) confirmed eight so-called "precursor" cases at Tihange and 2015. But a spokesman stressed that no conclusions could be drawn from this about the safety of the pile. "A connection is being made, but there is none."
The German government also had doubts about safety in the event of a possible accident and asked the neighboring country to take Tihange 2 off the grid for the time being.
Operator Engie Electrabel insists that the restart of the two alleged breakdown reactors was approved after extensive scientific analysis by independent experts. Tihange 2 had been shut down in 2014 over safety concerns after hairline cracks were discovered, but went back online in 2015. The cracks had been subjected to "marginal mechanical loads" but had "no negative impact on the structural integrity of the reactor vessel."
While the nuclear plants continue to produce energy, pressure from neighboring countries on Brussels is mounting. Last year, the Dutch parliament called for the Tihange power plant to be closed as quickly as possible. The government had also passed this vote on to Brussels. The government firmly expects Belgium to close the breakdown power plants by 2025 at the latest.
The German government also had doubts about safety in the event of a possible incident and asked the neighboring country to take Tihange 2 off the grid for the time being. However, the Belgian nuclear regulator has so far seen no reason to do so. Recently, North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister President Armin Laschet (CDU) called for the breakdown reactor to be shut down: "The sooner, the better." So far, he has failed with this.