Watchdog criticizes time-wasting of Belgian government regarding nuclear power plants
The Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) lashed out at the federal government on Tuesday, during a subcommittee of the parliament on nuclear safety. According to FANC, the government has wasted a lot of time in deciding on possible long-term decommissioning (LTO) of nuclear power plants. "An LTO requires the necessary preparation time. Not weeks, not months, but years," stresses An Wertelaers, director of the 'Installations and Waste' department at the nuclear watchdog.
FANC stresses that a decision on a life extension of a nuclear reactor requires three green lights. "Firstly, a clear political decision is needed, secondly, the operator must want to go along and thirdly, the nuclear safety authorities must give their agreement," Wertelaers says.
According to her, taking such a decision requires years of preparation time. "The operator has to have its engineers carry out safety studies. These must then result in safety improvements, which then have to be realised," Wertelaers said. "The safety equipment of a nuclear power plant has to be specially designed and produced and has to meet very strict criteria. This takes time. (...) And time pressure is a risk, especially in the nuclear sector."
Operator Engie Electrabel had urged the government to take a decision by the end of 2020. "And because no decision was forthcoming then, the operator decided to take its engineers, who were supposed to look into preparatory work for an LTO, off that work and let them work on preparations for a decommissioning. Neither Engie Electrabel nor FANC moved forward on an LTO scenario in 2021. Nothing more happened that year. And then suddenly, at the end of December, this question from the government comes anyway. (...) You can't make up for that lost time."
Wertelaers says that Engie Electrabel's position has also always been that the operator will not start preparatory works for an LTO until it has an agreement with the government. The federal government decided in March to extend the lifetime of the Tihange 3 and Doel 4 reactors by 10 years, until 2035, to maintain a nuclear generating capacity of 2 gigawatts. In late July, the government then announced that a first agreement in principle had been reached between the state and Engie Electrabel on the extension of the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 nuclear power plants.
On the progress of the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 dossier, Wertelaers says that there were initial interactions between FANC and Engie Electrabel in mid-September. "We are out of the starting blocks, but we are certainly not at cruising speed yet." As for a possible LTO for other reactors, she stresses that "the same conditions apply: three green lights". "Moreover, these are older reactors, with a design from the 1960s-1970s. These will require an even greater effort to make them pass an LTO. This will take years of preparation. In that file, we are absolutely nowhere."
Wertelaers also returned to a question from the government about the possibility of lifting the closure of reactor Tihange 2, scheduled for February 1, 2023, over winter and postponing it until the end of March. "Engie Electrabel has investigated this and decided for safety, technical and organisational reasons that this is not feasible. (...) FANC has also come to the conclusion that this scenario could have a drastic impact on nuclear safety and therefore cannot allow it under these circumstances."
© BELGA PHOTO ERIC LALMAND