Belgium's ageing nuclear plants worry neighbours

Protesters complain about the use of Belgium's oldest reactors
Image caption Some 800,000 people have signed a petition against the Belgian government's nuclear policy

Belgium's neighbours have expressed alarm at its plans to extend the life of 40-year-old nuclear reactors, seen by critics as dangerous.

Just across the border, the German city of Aachen and the Dutch city of Maastricht have announced they are considering taking legal action. They want to force Belgium to shut the reactors down.

Belgium has two nuclear plants at Doel, near the port of Antwerp, and at Tihange near Liege. They have a total of seven reactors, which produce around 60% of the country's energy needs.

But several incidents in the past few years have cast doubt on their safety:

  • One of Doel's four reactors, Doel 4, was hit by an unresolved case of sabotage
  • Another, Doel 3, was shut down for 21 months after the discovery of micro-cracks in the reactor's pressure vessels
  • A few days after being restarted, Doel 3 was shut down again on New Year's Eve after a water leak was found
  • At Tihange, a fire started in the electricity supply system on 27 December
  • Micro-cracks were also found in the pressure vessels of a Tihange reactor

In both cases at Tihange, operator Electrabel said an external audit had been done and the structural integrity was guaranteed.

But the neighbours are unimpressed. While neighbouring Germany looks to close down all its commercial nuclear reactors by 2022, Belgium appears to be taking the opposite course.

Image caption Tihange's operator, Electrabel, said an internal audit had guaranteed the structural integrity of the reactors

The Belgian government originally decided to shut down the oldest reactor, Doel 1, a year ago, but then switched it back on in an attempt to keep the plant going for another 10 years.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks met Belgium's interior minister and said a cross border assessment of the environmental impact should be mandatory, not only for the construction of new plants but also for the extension of older nuclear power plants.

"Belgium has assured us that experts will respond to the questions from the German government in February," she said.

'Belgian Fukushima'

But the messages being sent to the public are not entirely reassuring.

Energy specialist Prof Damien Ernst from the University of Liege told the BBC that there was "a higher risk of accident due to the presence of micro-cracks but the risk is still very low".

"Similar cracks have been discovered in many other nuclear reactors' vessels, including several cases in France. Some fear that the vessel would break and that of course would be a catastrophe, contaminating the soil and underground water, it would be a Belgian Fukushima."

A report last month from the body in charge of nuclear security in Belgium, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), recommended the distribution of iodine pills to the kingdom's entire population so that people would have them handy in case of a nuclear incident.

An online petition launched by campaign group Avaaz has gathered more than 800,000 signatures.

Christoph Schott of Avaaz accused Belgium of gambling with the lives of people across Europe.

"Belgium's reckless plan to switch on their ageing and crumbling nuclear reactors without proving they are safe is at best dangerous and at worst deadly," he said.

But an official from the Belgian interior ministry insisted that if there had been any doubt, the reactors would not have been restarted.

German experts will be invited to visit the plant at Tihange in the coming weeks.

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