Belgium to extend life of nuclear reactors by another decade

Doel 4 nuclear plant in Belgium. (Image by Wwuyts, Wikimedia Commons.)

Belgium’s government will work to extend the life of two nuclear reactors beyond their original shutdown date of 2025 to secure supply amid record-high energy prices.

The energy ministry will negotiate with operator Engie SA to prolong the operation of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 reactors for a further 10 years up until 2035, the federal government said in a statement. It will submit the draft bill on extension to the Council of Ministers by the end of March and also plans to spend 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) to finance its transition to climate neutrality.

“This extension should allow to strengthen our country’s independence from fossil fuels in a chaotic geopolitical context,” the government said.

Accelerated transition

The announcement comes as part of a plan by the energy ministry that includes measures to accelerate transition to renewable energy for the country, which imports more than 90% of its primary energy. It also marks a revision of earlier plans to shut nuclear reactors, a step also being considered in Germany, in response to possible energy supply disruption after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Belgium earlier foresaw a progressive closing of Engie’s seven nuclear plants — which provide about half of the country’s electricity — by 2025, replacing them with a combination of new gas-fired power stations, renewable power, battery storage and electricity imports. Engie, which will be expected to submit a long-term plan for the reactors, had previously said that the timing set out by the Belgian federal government isn’t compatible with the legal, regulatory and operational issues of such an extension project.

The decision to extend the operational lifetime of the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 reactors raises significant safety, regulatory and implementation constraints — particularly since their operational lifetime would be extended once work on dismantling the adjacent units would have already begun, Engie said in a statement late last night.

“Engie will contribute to this rethinking and will work with the government on studying the feasibility and the implementation conditions of the solutions envisaged at this stage,” it said.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters late on Friday that the government has always negotiated with Engie in a respectful manner and in the past found means to align interests between the two.

“It is clear if we manage to extend beyond 2025, it will be a good thing,” De Croo said. “There is a lot of work to do.”

Belgium will also invest 100 million euros over the next four years to develop nuclear energy through small modular nuclear reactors, according to the plan.

Boosting Investment

Under its transition plan, the government will boost investment in offshore wind, hydrogen and solar energy as well as cooperate with neighboring countries, while aiming to make Belgium a hub for the import and transit of green hydrogen.

Meanwhile in Germany, which has long planned to exit atomic energy, the invasion of Ukraine has prompted calls for delaying the nuclear phaseout. 

EON SE and EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG said they’re willing to discuss a possible extension of operations. While keeping the plants open past the 2022 closing deadline is technically possible, the companies said they have no contracts to buy nuclear fuel after that and the government may encounter a backlash from voters and environmental groups alike.

Oliver Krischer, a deputy German economy minister, welcomed that what he called “the five oldest and most dangerous blocks” at Tihange and Doel will be shut down for good in 2023. But he criticized Belgium’s move to extend the life of two of the reactors.

“On the other hand, it is incomprehensible to extend the term of two blocks by 10 years to 2035,” he said Saturday in a tweet. Krischer, a member of the Greens party, represents the city of Aachen — which is approximately 90 kilometers from the Tihange facility — in the lower house of parliament in Berlin.(Updates with comments from German deputy economy minister)

(By Lyubov Pronina, with assistance from Iain Rogers and Adeola Eribake)

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