Belgium’s nuclear regulator has questioned the safety of the Electrabel-operated Doel 3 reactor due to cracks in the pressure vessels that have already forced the shutdown of a similar unit at the Tihange nuclear plant.
Belgium has halted the 1,006-megawatt Doel 3 reactor until at least the end of August after the discovery of suspected cracks in the pressure vessel. But it is possible that the reactor could be shut down for good.
Willy De Roovere, who heads the FANC regulator agency, said it was always hard for a company to meet a requirement to prove a nuclear plant is safe.
He told a news conference that Electrabel, the Belgian unit of France’s GDF Suez, would have to show that "in a period of the remaining lifetime there is no single risk, there is no risk at all that cracks can go [on to produce leaks]."
A spokeswoman for Electrabel said, as quoted by Reuters: "Is it safe or not to continue the production of Doel 3? That's what we will have to prove to the FANC."
The vessel in question was built by now-defunct Dutch company Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij, which also constructed the pressure vessel for another Belgian unit, Tihange 2, as well as parts for nuclear plants throughout Europe and in the Americas.
The Belgian agency BELGA reported that Tihange 2 was halted yesterday, as it has the same pressure vessel as Doel.
“I would like to remind that Doel 3 and Tihange 2 have been halted and do not represent any danger for the population, the workers and the environment,” De Roovere was quoted as saying.
Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij was also responsible for two units in Germany that are no longer operating, two in the Netherlands, two in Spain, one in Sweden, two in Switzerland, 10 in the United States and one in Argentina, said the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, an agency within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development..
Nuclear specialists from the countries where the Dutch vessels are in use are due to meet in Brussels today (17 August).
De Roovere said it was doubtful the Doel operations would resume before the end of September and that regulators would meet again in October to discuss the issue.
The Doel 3 reactor had been scheduled to close in 10 years' time, according to a nuclear exit plan the Belgian government adopted in July.
GDF Suez is expected to trim significantly its 47-year-old nuclear business now that Belgium, the only nation where it operates nuclear plants, is phasing out its reliance on atomic power.
Belgium has long considered a complete exit from nuclear energy (see background), but that will depend on its having enough alternative sources of energy in place.
EU member states are each responsible for determining policy on nuclear power and on the energy mix in general.
However, the European Commission has initiated a series of voluntary stress tests as part of efforts to ensure safety following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster.
They were meant to be completed before the Commission's August summer break, but governments have been given extra time for further assessments.
Speaking in Essen, Germany, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said he expected the stress tests to be completed in October and that they would include the assessment from regulators about risks associated with the possible cracks in the Belgian unit.
"In the coming weeks, we expect clear results from the Belgium regulators about possible risks," he said, as quoted by Reuters.
Belgium has seven nuclear reactors at two plants, Doel and Tihange, owned by GDF Suez unit Electrabel. In 2009, atomic energy provided 55% of the country's electricity generation.
In 2009, Belgium decided to keep its oldest nuclear reactors running for 10 years longer than planned in 2003, but this change never came into force as the government that decided the measure lost power.
In 2011, the country’s political parties reached a conditional agreement to shut down the three oldest reactors by 2015 and to abandon of nuclear energy by 2025. The agreement is conditional on finding enough energy from alternative sources to prevent shortages.
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