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.
Belgium’s federal government signed off on an agreement that will see the country’s seven nuclear reactors shuttered by 2025.
As part of a package of other measures, Doel and Tihange nuclear power stations will be closed and more investment will be pumped into renewable energy capacity building, particularly offshore wind farms.
Belgium sources about 40% of its power needs from atom-smashing and over 50% of electricity is provided by its two power plants, meaning the EU institutions host will have to invest hugely in renewable energy capacity or rely more on natural gas.
The country places fourth globally behind France, Slovakia and Ukraine in terms of highest share of nuclear in national energy mixes.
Belgium is currently lagging behind in hitting its 2020 renewable energy target of 13%, as recent Eurostat data showed only 8.7% of its energy needs are sourced from solar, wind et al.
A final decision on closing its nuclear power plants could provide the impulse Belgium needs to build more RES capacity. The energy pact also confirmed that the country will adopt its national energy strategy for 2030 by next year.
According to the World Nuclear Association, the reactors currently in operation at Doel and Tihange are licensed until the end of 2025, meaning the pledge to phase out nuclear generation will ultimately boil down to a simple case of not renewing permits.
But both facilities have in the past courted controversy due to safety concerns and the advanced age of the reactors.
Micro-cracks were discovered in reactors at both power plants in 2013 and were closed until 2015 while extensive safety checks were carried out. Environmental groups were outraged when their licences were extended until 2025, by which time they will nearly be half a century old.
Belgium’s new Nuclear Energy Strategy recently came into force, under which radiation-busting iodine tablets were made available to everyone resident in the country in case of a nuclear incident.
Both power stations are located near the Dutch and German borders. The Netherlands only has one operational small-scale reactor and Germany has announced that it will close all its nuclear plants too.
Reactions to Belgium’s planned phase-out have been muted so far, as the decision will have to be submitted to ministers by 31 May for approval, although ExxonMobil’s Belgian office tweeted that it was in favour of the new energy pact.
However, the Belgian Nuclear Forum said in a statement that phasing out atomic power would harm Belgium’s chances of hitting its climate targets, insisting that emissions would triple by 2050 in a nuclear-free scenario.
The Forum added that Belgium would risk seeing its geopolitical standing weaken, as the country would need to rely on others to meet its power needs, citing Russian gas and electricity from French nuclear as two sources that would take hold.
Belgium may be eyeing an escape from nuclear energy but Poland hopes to make progress in embracing atomic power generation, with the construction of its first reactor.
Energy minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski told a Polish forum last week that an investment decision needs to be made as soon as possible, as the EU’s largest eastern member struggles to build momentum in decarbonising its economy.
Tchórzewski insisted that “all our analysis shows we have to move in this direction”, reiterating comments he made last September that Poland aims to build three blocks of nuclear power generation.
Costs are estimated to be near €6 billion and 2030 has been earmarked as the earliest point by which a reactor could be brought online.
Energy experts believe that it would take several years for Poland to do the preparation work for an idea that has been in the works since 2009 and that construction would last around six years.
But doubts have emerged about the viability of the plan, as renewable energy sources become cheaper by the day. Serious concerns also persist following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and even 1986’s Chernobyl disaster, fallout from which actually hit northern Poland.
Official data released by the UK government has shown that wind and solar power generation outstripped nuclear in the fourth quarter, for the very first time.
Both renewable power sources generated 18.33 terawatt hours (TWh), with nuclear on 16.69TWh, the figures published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy show.
Although renewables still failed to match natural gas, which generated over 35Twh, it was enough for green groups like Greenpeace to urge Westminster to stop propping up the nuclear industry financially and to pump more money into wind and solar.
Britain’s latest foray into nuclear power is proving to be controversial for a variety of reasons, as the expansion of its Hinkley Point facility has reportedly gone over budget and is behind schedule.
Controversy was also stoked when it was revealed that “radioactive” mud dredged from the coastal construction site in England would be dumped in waters near the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
Tests on the dredged material recently found that the mud is actually safe but Welsh politicians criticised the devolved government of “selling out to London”.