Environmentalist: Belgium ignoring lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima

Construction of a €1.5 billion sarcophagus for Chernobyl's reactor 4 continues. It is hoped that there will not have to be another disaster for change to happen. [Kuba Danecki/Flickr]

Germany’s Minister for the Environment, Barbara Hendricks, has conducted talks with the Belgian government on extending the lifespan of its two nuclear power stations. They agreed to strengthen cooperation on nuclear safety. EURACTIV Germany reports.

However, this is not enough for the people of the German city of Aachen, which lies on the border with both Belgium and Netherlands. The threat of a possible nuclear incident at the aging Tihange facility, located only 60 kilometres from the city, has prompted the Aachen city region to launch legal proceedings. EURACTIV Germany spoke with Claus Mayr about the rising tensions.

Claus Mayr is the Director of European Policy at the German Society for Nature Conservation (NABU), and lives with his family in Aachen.

Mayr was interviewed by EURACTIV Germany’s Editor-in-Chief, Ama Lorenz.

How do you assess the action that is being mooted? 

I don’t want to dampen anyone’s spirits. Indeed, it is most welcome that the city region of Aachen, Aachen itself and some Dutch municipalities like Maastricht, have joined forces to oppose what the press have dubbed the “scrap reactors” of Tihange. It’s an important political signal. However, based on my long experience with European environmental and nature protection law, I would say that it won’t be possible to stop the prolonging of the reactors’ operational lives in the courts. Although, it will be interesting to see what the leading law firms bring to the table.

The directive on environmental information that was pushed through by the European Parliament, the Council and the member states in 2003 could come into play then.

Certainly. In fact, the talks held yesterday (1 February) were very much aimed at improving the sharing of mutual information. But beyond that? The switching on or off of nuclear reactors does not fall under the remit of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or the Espoo Convention that came into force in 1997.

>>Read: Further setback for Germany’s planned coal phase out

This contrasts with the example of the Dutch nuclear plant in Borssele, which the Netherlands planned to expand a few years ago, and which Germany and local citizens managed to contest. Ultimately, the plans were shelved, not least down to the fact that its financial backing dried up.

Barbara Hendricks brought up the issue of cross-border environmental impact assessments during their talks yesterday, stating her wish that Belgium had carried one out before deciding to extend the lifespan of the plants, despite not being legally obligated to. How do we find ourselves in a situation where there is no legal framework in place for cross-border issues of nuclear safety?

The main problem is that the EURATOM Treaty of 1957 is still in place, and that each member state still holds independent responsibility on the construction and operation of nuclear power stations. Even the European Commission’s proposed “stress tests”, which came about in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, were unable to find a majority in the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament. With all this in mind, one has to conclude that the German Environment Ministry has no possibility of influencing the Belgian authorities.

After nearly 60 years and a number of nuclear disasters, surely it is time that the EU agrees to revise the EURATOM Treaty.

The chances of this happening have maybe improved since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima incident, as a number of EU states have decided to phase out nuclear power. The 2004 EU enlargement saw numerous nuclear power plants come into the EU, but many are just remnants of the Soviet era. For example, the Ignalina facility in Lithuania was shut as part of the country’s accession, through the help of EU subsidies, i.e. taxpayer money.

>>Read: Auditors find that German nuclear providers can afford phase-out

The German government, supported by the Bundestag and members of the regional parliament, should use public scepticism of nuclear power to push for treaty changes, through Angela Merkel at the European Council, as well as Sigmar Gabriel and Hendricks herself at the Council of Ministers. The same applies for the Parliament. Martin Schulz could end his term as Parliament president in style by succeeding in gaining changes, where they failed back in 2014.

Do you think the Aachen situation will make waves and even have an impact on an EU-wide solution?

Extraordinary events can bring about change. The Chernobyl disaster led to Germany establishing a new ministry dedicated to nuclear energy, the BMUB, while Italy was the first EU state the phase out nuclear energy. Fukushima convinced Germany to start its own phase out plan, which other EU and non-EU states, such as Switzerland, had already started. Perhaps the Tihange case can bring about change without the need for a serious nuclear disaster first.

Italy began to cut its reliance on nuclear power in 1986, when a reactor at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant of Chernobyl exploded. Austria's constitution makes nuclear power illegal in the alpine republic. Even France, which is hugely reliant on nuclear power, will significantly cut its dependence in the coming years. Its oldest power station, Fessenheim, near the German border, will be taken fully offline by 2018.

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