No nuclear phase-out for Belgium

By Benedict De Meulemeester

By Benedict De Meulemeester on 11/10/2009

Belgium produces approximately 60% of its electricity in the nuclear power plants situated in Doel and Tihange. A decade ago it was decided that these would be phased out. That decision has now been reversed. The oldest plants will keep on running beyond 2015, the date put forward for their shutdown.

In 1999, Belgium lived through a political earthquake. Right before the elections, a food scandal broke out, with chickens polluted with dioxin coming from industrial oil that got mixed up in chicken food. The result was a landslide electoral victory for the Green parties in both Flanders and the Walloon Region. The Greens made a government together with liberals and socialists.

The green parties in Belgium, like in most European countries, have their roots in the anti-nuclear movement, the mass protests against nuclear arms of the late seventies and eighties. To them, the triple danger of nuclear accidents, storage of nuclear waste and proliferation of nuclear technology, makes nuclear the worst possible technology for producing electricity. It was therefore not surprising that the green parties enforced legislation for a nuclear phase-out. As of 2015, when the oldest nuclear power plants reach the end of their lifetime, the law asked for them to be shut down. As such, the share of electricity produced by nuclear power, currently approximately 60%, would start to fall.

One would suspect that politicians that have just voted to close nuclear power plants would draw up a plan for investing in the transition towards a new power production. Not so in Belgium. Since 1999, no new large scale power plants have opened. Admitted, renewable energy is developing remarkably swift, thanks to strong incentives. But the small scale of renewable energy plants make it an unlikely replacement for the massive amounts of energy currently produced by nuclear power plants. The result is undeniable. In the past decade, Belgium has switched from being an exporter into becoming an importer of electricity.

Most of that electricity is coming from France, where it is produced in … nuclear power plants. Proponents of keeping Belgian nuclear power plants therefore have a valid argument when they point out that shutting them down is hypocrisy. The Belgians won’t stop consuming nuclear energy, they will just bring it in from abroad instead of producing it inside their own borders. Therefore, the decision to keep the Belgian nuclear plants open for longer than 2015 looks like sound policy. Moreover, it was probably inevitable. The initial phase-out law included a passage that said that the phase-out would be turned back if it could be proven that it would cause problems for the power supply of the country. As such, the current decision was already embedded in the initial decision to shut down.

Still, I am disappointed by the way our politicians treat this important issue regarding the energy supply of our country for several reasons:

  1. Nobody ever seriously studied how a non-nuclear power supply for Belgium could have looked like. Greens naively held on to the doctrine that the combination of more renewable production and reducing consumption would be able to replace 60% of current power production. Socialists did the same, although they admitted that it would also mean extra import of French electricity. Other parties simply waited for the moment to reverse the phase-out decision.
  2. That moment is now, because of budgetary concerns. It is unacceptable that important long term decisions regarding our energy supply are taken to ease short term concerns such as the current budgetary situation only. The cabinet seems to be mostly concerned about how much money they can get from Electrabel in exchange for the phase-out reversal, much more than with the safety questions or what this decision means for the Belgian energy market. Some politicians openly plead to pocket a lot of Electrabel money in a short time, saving the budget during their constituencies, rather than getting the compensation money over a longer period and investing it in the long term energy future of the country.
  3. Some politicians show a clear lack of understanding of how electricity markets work. They proclaim that keeping open the nuclear power plants will lower the cost of electricity in Belgium. That is not true. The price of electricity in Belgium is set by fossil fuel fired power plants. It is therefore determined by the cost of gas and coal, and nuclear power plants do nothing to lower it. Open power markets work with a mechanism called ‘marginal cost pricing’, but in the past days I have heard only one politician, Bruno Tobback, that seems to understand how that works.

The political bickering of the past days makes me pessimistic. I fear that Electrabel compensation will take the shape of a tax that will be passed through to the consumers of power. And I also fear that another good opportunity of negotiating measures to improve the situation of the Belgian power market will get lost.

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