Belgian nuclear reactors serving half the country’s energy needs have been taken offline for repairs, effectively acting as a trial run for the phasing out of nuclear energy in the country in 2022.
Seven Belgian nuclear reactors produce around half of the country’s electricity – three at Tihange in Liege and four at Doel near Antwerp – but six of the seven are now down for maintenance. Doel 3, the one reactor which remains functional, was temporarily shut down last year due to concerns about concrete degradation in bunkers close to the reactor buildings; two of the Tihange reactors and one in Doel have now been taken offline for the same reason.
The remaining three reactors were already offline: one is down for refuelling and regular maintenance, while two were closed down earlier this year for repairs to their water cooling systems.
While the government has said Belgian nuclear reactors pose no “specific” risk, earlier this year it extended the area within which it distributes free iodine tablets to be used in a nuclear emergency. Tablets are now to be issued in all of Belgium and some parts of Germany and the Netherlands.
For the time being Belgium will rely on imported energy, with liquefied natural gas brought in primarily from France; but Elia, which operates the Belgian electricity grid, has warned of potential blackouts and rationed electricity during the winter, when energy demand is highest. With the majority of Belgian nuclear reactors out of commission, Elia has devised an eight-stage load-shedding plan in the event of continuing energy shortfalls, which would see rolling blackouts in rural areas. After the first stage of load-shedding trains would stop running – Belgium is a major rail hub for passengers and freight moving across Europe.
Engie, the French energy supplier which owns Electrabel, has brought in diesel generators and reopened old natural gas plants to make up the shortfall caused by closing the Belgian nuclear reactors; it has also offered financial incentives to heavy industrial customers to cut down their energy use.
The reactors’ operator Electrabel has predicted the three Belgian nuclear reactors experiencing concrete degradation will be back online by the end of the year, although engineering sources have said this is an optimistic estimate and work is likely to continue until mid-2019.
Belgium is due to begin phasing out its nuclear power reliance in 2022, with all Belgian nuclear reactors to be fully closed down by 2025.