Belgian nuclear plant may breach EU law, says top judge

Doel nuclear power plant, near Belgium's border with the Netherlands, is at the centre of an ongoing legal dispute. [RockerStocker / Shutterstock]

A European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate-general has cast doubt on Belgium’s decision to extend the life of one of its ageing nuclear power plants, suggesting that environmental impact assessments may not have been carried out properly.

In an opinion issued on Thursday (29 November), Advocate-General Juliane Kokott insisted that extending the operating lifespan of two of the Doel plant’s reactors without a proper audit of environmental concerns means EU rules “have been infringed”.

Kokott concluded that the Espoo and Aarhus conventions, international treaties governing transboundary environmental issues and public participation in decision-making processes, had not been respected.

But Kokott also suggested that “overriding grounds of public interest” like security of power supply legitimately played a part in the Belgian authorities’ decision and said keeping the decision on the extension “is not ruled out”.

EURACTIV has approached the Belgian energy ministry for comment.

Doel reactors 1 and 2, located near the Belgian-Dutch border, were scheduled to go offline permanently in 2015, in keeping with a decision made in 2003 to shut down nuclear plants that reach 40 years of age.

But the government decided later in 2015 to extend both reactors by 10 years, provided that operator Electrabel would invest €700 million in improving the security of the atom smashers.

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On Friday (30 March), the Belgian government approved a new energy pact that will see the country phase out atomic power between 2022 and 2025.

Two Belgian environmental associations lodged a complaint with the country’s Constitutional Court as a result, alleging that the decision had been made without necessary impact assessments or an opportunity for the public to participate in the process.

Both claims are governed by the Espoo Convention on transboundary matters and the Aarhus Convention on public participation.

Commenting on the advisory opinion, European Environmental Bureau (EEB) Legal Officer Francesca Carlsson said: “Transboundary environmental impact assessments and effective public participation are essential elements of international and EU environmental law that help protect people across Europe”.

She added that “given the risks posed by ageing nuclear reactors, including to people in neighbouring countries, it’s clearly not in the public interest to derogate from EU law”.

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The associations also alleged that the EU’s Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIA), Habitat’s Directive and the Birds Directive have also been breached, given that Doel is close to a number of European nature and bird protection sites.

Because of the claim that EU laws have been infringed, the court referred the case up to the ECJ and today’s opinion will now be scrutinised by ECJ judges, who will then issue a ruling. The full court rarely goes against AG opinions.

Belgian environmentalist Sara Van Dyck told EURACTIV that “future lifetime extensions will no longer be possible just like that. This verdict makes it clear that they will not pass without the proper environmental assessment and public consultation.”

Belgium is currently facing significant security of supply concerns, as “concrete degradation” was discovered at its other nuclear plant, Tihange. Nuclear normally satisfies about 40% of the nation’s electricity demand but Belgium is having to rely on energy imports more.

Electrabel CEO Philippe Van Troeye recently told L’Echo that power supply “will be tight in January and February. But it was also tight in November, with just one reactor in operation. Still, we coped. January and February will be colder months, with access to imports less certain.”

However, the CEO did say that he has not resigned himself “to the idea that there will be power cuts just yet” and that “power cuts are not a given”.

Power association ENTSO-E warned on Wednesday (28 November) that there could be electricity shortages in January if temperatures fall below -5 and wind capacity falls below 30%.

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