Nuclear energy in Belgium
The country’s first commercial nuclear reactor began operating in 1974. Currently, Belgium has seven nuclear reactors operating in the country with a net MWe of 5,761. Electricity consumption in Belgium has increased slowly since 1990 and nuclear power provides 54%, 45 billion kWh per year, of the country’s electricity.
Belgium decided to phase out nuclear power generation completely by 2025. All intermediate deadlines however have been missed or pushed back.
The Uranium ore used was discovered in 1913 in Katanga in then Belgian Congo by UMHK. The ore found in the Shinkolobwe mine was exceptionally rich. Even before the second world war the United States expressed an interest in it. However it wasn't until 1942 when the United States required uranium for the Manhattan Project, and Belgium was one of the few countries with an appreciable stock of uranium ore, that Edgar Sengier struck a deal. For the following decade Belgium through its colony was one of the main suppliers of uranium to the United States. This trade relationship resulted in Belgium being granted access to nuclear technology for civil purposes.
In 1952 this led to establishing SCK•CEN, a study center for nuclear research. The first reactor BR1 (Belgian Reactor 1) became critical in 1956. Construction of BR2 started the following year. The BR2 reactor is one of the five main reactors producing molybdenum-99 which decays into technetium-99m, the radioisotope used in more that 80% of diagnostic imaging procedures in nuclear medicine.
In 1957 A site in Dessel Belgium, a stone's throw away from SCK•CEN was chosen to be the location for Eurochemic. Thirteen OECD countries (Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Norway, Turkey, Portugal, Spain) joined forces to build a pilot nuclear reprocessing installation. This made the atoomwijk, a housing project for workers on private land near the site a unique scientific village in Europe at the time.
In 1958 the world fair Expo 58 in Brussel was to be powered by BR3. The reactor was to be built in Brussels, and open to visitors. Ultimately safety concerns and administrative problems moved the reactor to the SCK•CEN site. The other iconic symbol of the belief in nuclear technology at the time the Atomium housed a photo exhibition.
US built BR3 was connected to the grid in 1962. Making it the first pressurized water reactor in Western Europe.
SCK•CEN played a large role in developing MOX fuel. In 1960 near the same site NV Belgonuclaire, a joint venture between SCK•CEN, Electrabel and Tractebel received its first plutonium from the United States, with the goal of industrially producing MOX fuel. In 1963 BR3 was loaded with MOX fuel and was the first reactor in the world to generate electricity this way.
In 1967 the commercial Chooz-A plant in France, close to the Belgian border, was connected to the grid. It had been constructed by a French-Belgian joint venture Sena (Société d'énergie nucléaire Franco-belge des Ardennes) to house a French-Belgian prototype pressurized water reactor, the first one built in Western Europe. It was jointly operated and delivered electricity to both countries.
The first commercial nuclear reactor in Belgium, Doel-1, was taken into service in 1974. Six more were connected to the grid during the following ten years. Plans for an eighth reactor were scrapped instead utilities Electrabel and SPE took a 25% participation in the French Chooz-B nuclear power plant.
In 1974 Eurochemics stopped its reprocessing activities. In 1987 BR3 was the first pressurized water reactor to be shut down in Europe. Decommissioning BR3 and Eurochemic has given Belgium significant expertise in the decommissioning of nuclear sites.
There are two commercial nuclear power plants operational:
- Doel Nuclear Power Station along the Scheldt river, near the port of Antwerp
- Tihange Nuclear Power Station along the Meuse river
Both stations are operated by Electrabel.
There are several test reactors at the SCK•CEN site in Mol. The Thetis research reactor of Ghent University is being decommissioned, and has had its fuel removed from site. None of these research reactors supply electricity to the grid.
The French nuclear power plant in Chooz is particularly close—3 kilometres (1.9 mi)—to the Belgian border and surrounded on three sides by Belgian territory. The area around the power plant is subject to the same precautions as if there was a Belgian nuclear installation in the center.
Belgium is one of the thirteen countries who have dumped radioactive waste in the ocean. This practise was permanently halted in 1982.
Prior to parliament placing a moratorium on nuclear reprocessing in 1993, 670 tonnes of spent fuel from the commercial reactors was processed in La Hague, France. The last return transport of highly radioactive waste, mainly fission products, took place in 2007. Other types of waste will be returning from La Hague to Belgium until 2019. Spent fuel from the BR2 reactor at SCK•CEN was reprocessed in Dounreay, Scotland.
A national agency is responsible for radioactive waste management(ONDRAF/NIRAS), including transport, treatment, conditioning, storage, and disposal. The main disposal facility is the Belgoprocess (Subsidiary of ONDRAF/NIRAS) site close to the towns Mol and Dessel, which stores short-lived intermediate-level waste and high-level waste. Several shipments of reprocessed Belgian spent fuel, from France and Scotland, have also arrived at the Mol-Dessel site. This Site offers interim storage on the surface.
Synatom, the Electrabel subsidiary that manages the fuel cycle for the commercial power plants, stores spent nuclear fuel on site before it is transferred over to ONDRAF/NIRAS. The commercial reactors produce 120 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel annually. In Doel it is stored dry in containers, in Tihange a spent fuel pool is used.
For low and intermediate-level waste with a short half-life (less than 30 years) the cAt project was chosen in 2006. This entails encasing the waste in modular concrete boxes which will be stacked inside structures resembling tumuli in Dessel. The site is to be actively monitored for 300 years, after which the radioactivity of the waste will have decreased by a factor 1,000. A test version was built in 2011, and the project is awaiting final licensing.
ONDRAF/NIRAS and SCK•CEN run the HADES underground laboratory through EIG EURIDICE (European Underground Research Infrastructure for Disposal of nuclear waste In Clay Environment). Since 1980 this laboratory is researching if layers of clay as found in the North-East of Belgium could be used for permanent storage of nuclear waste. 
In September 2011 ONDRAF/NIRAS fulfilled its legal obligation of publishing a Waste Plan. The 255 page document evaluates all proposed methods of disposal and concludes by recommending storage in the aforementioned layers of clay. The final decision is a political one. No permanent storing is expected to take place prior to 2040.
Nuclear power stations also produce liquid and gaseous effluents. Nuclear effluents contain less radioactivity over a larger volume. They are dispersion into the environment.
FANC (Federal Agency for Nuclear Control) estimates the maximal impact of the Doel site at 0.02 mSv per year, and the maximal impact of the Tihange site at 0.05 mSv per year. The legal limit of exposure of the public to radiation from artificial sources is 1 mSv per year.
The liquid effluents of Doel and Tihange sites are discharged into the Scheldt and Meuse rivers. There is no river near the Mol-Dessel sites. Its effluents are discharged via a 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) pipeline into the small river Molse Nete. Which suffers from historical pollution.
In the year 1999 the policy statement of the Verhofstadt I Government (a coalition including the green parties Groen! and Ecolo) introduced the plan to phase-out nuclear power generation. The following year a government appointed commission reported that nuclear power was important to Belgium and recommended further development. Nevertheless, in 2003 near the end of its term Belgium's government passed phase-out legislation. It stipulates that no new commercial reactors are to be built and that Belgium's seven reactors would be shut down when they reach an operational lifetime of 40 years. All reactors reach this age in the period 2015–2025. When the law was being passed, there was speculation it would be overturned again as soon as an administration without the green parties was in power. A report published in 2005 by the Federal Planning Bureau noted that in many parts of Belgium nuclear power makes up more than 50% of the electricity generated. It would therefore be difficult for Belgium to adhere to the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocols without nuclear power. In 2007, the Belgian Commission on Energy said that the use of nuclear energy is imperative to meet CO
2 requirements and maintain economic stability. Furthermore, the commission believed that energy prices would double without the use of nuclear energy. The commission finally recommended that the operating lives of the seven nuclear reactors should be extended. The International Energy Agency also stated that the phase-out should be reconsidered.
In 2009, based on the GEMIX report, the government decided to extend the lifetimes of the three oldest reactors until 2025. In exchange, the owners would be charged an extra €215–245 million (about US$340 million) per year. This was not yet finalized into law when in 2010 the government resigned over unrelated issues. It was considered to be a formality, that would be taken care of when a new government was formed. However a prolonged period of political instability, without a government being formed, followed. The decision was pushed back further after the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in March 2011. The caretaker government then decided to postpone any debate or decision in the matter until after the results of a European stress-test of the facilities were known.
A couple of months prior to these results being published however the new government decided in July 2012 that only Tihange-1's lifetime would be extended to 2025. The two oldest reactors at the Doel site (Doel-1 and Doel-2) were set to be closed in 2015. Their lifetime was however extended until 2025.
The remaining Belgian reactors Doel-3, Tihange 2 are set to be closed down in 2022, Doel-4 and Tihange-3 in 2025.
Hydrogen flakes in Doel-3 and Tihange-2
Mid August 2012 it was revealed that planned inspections, carried out in June, using a new type of ultrasound technique had detected thousands of quasi-laminar flaws in the forged rings of Doel-3's reactor vessel. The Doel-3 and Tihange-2 reactors vessels were both built in the early 1980s by RDM. Subsequently Tihange-2 was also inspected with this new technique at the next planned inspection. Tihange-2 reactor vessel was found to be affected in a similar fashion. During further inspections and reports from expert panels the reactors remained non-oprational.
Shortly after FANC had communicated the news, the government responded angrily. Suggesting they might politicize the agency and stating the director general should have kept quiet until all reports were in. Three months later he was replaced by Jan Bens, a former director of the commercial nuclear powerplant Doel. Jan Bens' neutrality was questioned by FANC's own experts Pierre Kockerols and Yvan Pouleur. The latter, director of internal affairs, also filed a complaint at the council of state.
December 5 Electrabel, operator of the reactors in question, presented results of its investigation. It stated that the reactors could be restarted safely. The report was studied by AIB Vinçotte, BEL V, a panel of international experts and by a group of Belgian Professors. In May Kristof Calvo published the confidential reports of BEL V, and AIB Vinçotte. Both reports, compiled at the end of January, speak of uncertainties. Concerns are also raised due to the break exclusion requirement, and the fact that this level of fractures was unseen. At the request of the European Greens doctor Ilse Tweer, materials expert and nuclear consultant, had also published her own report in which she argued against restarting the reactors.
FANC postponed its decision several times, requesting more tests and information. May 17 FANC announced that it will allow the reactors to be restarted. Doel 3 was restarted June 3, 2013 after nearly a year of inactivity. Thiange 2 followed a couple days later.
Greenpeace Belgium has protested the use of nuclear power on several occasions.
On the 2012 anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Belgian group Nucléaire Stop Kernenergie organized an event in Brussels calling for an end to the use of nuclear power and the shutting down of Belgium’s nuclear facilities. Protesters insisted that nuclear power is unsafe. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann expects anti-nuclear petition drives to start in at least six European Union countries in 2012 with the goal of having the EU abandon nuclear power. Under the EU's Lisbon Treaty, petitions that attract at least one million signatures can seek legislative proposals from the European Commission.
The lobby group World Nuclear Association claims that while a majority of Belgians support the decision to phaseout nuclear power, 70% fear higher energy costs and 82% believe nuclear power should not be phased out if it threatens energy security. They further claim that 65% of the population support continued nuclear power generation in the country.
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