The Belgian government is kept on a leash by Electrabel. On Friday 19 December, the federal government decided to extend the lifetime of nuclear reactors Doel 1 and 2 by ten years.

Nuclear Action Doel (Belgium : 2002) - A Greenpeace activist erects a wind powered turbine in front of the Doel nuclear power plant in protest against the renewable energy discrimination by the Belgian government. With 60% of the electricity generated with heavily subsidised nuclear power in Belgium, nuclear energy occupies the electricity grid and blocks the large scale breakthrough of inexpensive wind energy. Greenpeace calls upon the Parliament to remove these nuclear subsidies.07/01/2002 © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers

Only one party benefits from this decision: the owner and operator of this old nuclear power plant, GDF Suez/Electrabel. The decision once again confirms that Belgium’s energy supply is governed by a French private company which is only interested in its profits. The only way for Belgium to shift towards a sustainable energy future is for its people to jointly push for change.

The government and Electrabel will still discuss who is going to pay for the lifetime extensions, but it is clear that GDF Suez/Electrabel will not lose a penny. It will cost hundreds of millions to make the necessary safety measures in order to reduce the risks of the ageing reactors.  In order to agree to  such a large investment, Electrabel demands ‘a clear legal and economic framework’. Read: ‘a good deal to reduce the investment risks’.

It’s the Belgian people who will pay the price, one way or another. If not through increased taxes, when Electrabel’s payments to the state decrease, then through increased electricity prices when Electrabel passes on their investments to their clients. Or even worse, through a possible bankruptcy of the Belgian state in the event of a nuclear disaster. In contrast to other energy sources, a nuclear power plant can operate while its owner has only very limited liability in case of accidents.

Still the Belgian government followed Electrabel slavishly and cancelled previous agreements under the nuclear phase-out law. The government agreed in September to evaluate the decision on lifetime extensions in relation to the future of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors – the reactors that are plagued by cracks in their reactor vessels and have been closed (for the second time) since spring 2014.

However, the Electrabel report on the cracks has been delayed, and hence also the technical evaluation of the Belgian nuclear regulator FANC will not be ready before spring 2015 at the earliest.

The long-term unavailability of the two large reactors is now used as one of the reasons for the lifetime extensions of Doel 1 and 2. Pressure from Electrabel has forced the government into the current decision, using the security of energy supply as their main argument.

The government decision however will be counterproductive. Nuclear power has been the main cause of Belgium’s energy problems: next to the problems with cracked reactors Doel 3 and Tihange 2, reactor Doel 4 has been closed for almost 5 months because of a serious act of sabotage. In combination with Electrabel’s closure of gas power plants, this has created doubts about the country’s security of supply in the face of cold winters.

The energy supply will now remain unreliable for another 10 years due to continued reliance on ageing nuclear power plants. Belgium is playing with nuclear fire and puts the faith of its energy future in the hands of a foreign energy giant.

At the same time, the transition to a clean and sustainable energy supply is pushed back for another 10 years as renewable energy is being side-lined.

Can we expect the Belgian government to get a grip and change its course? Little chance. When we want to see a change in Belgium, it will have to come from the people. People can choose power suppliers or cooperatives who only invest in clean solutions. People have to act where politicians fail. 

Dr. Rianne Teule is Campaign Director for Greenpeace Belgium

[Image: A Greenpeace activist erects a wind powered turbine in front of the Doel nuclear power plant in protest against the renewable energy discrimination by the Belgian government. 07/01/2002 © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers]