In a move motivated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sky-high energy prices hitting Europe as a result, the Belgian government last Friday announced its intention to extend the operational life of two of its nuclear power reactors, Doel-4 and Tihange-3, through 2035.
The action is a partial reversal of the government’s plan, reaffirmed most recently in December 2021, to shutter all seven units at the two plants by 2025. The plan had called for the construction of two gas-fired plants to compensate for the loss of electricity generation from the nuclear plants. (Russia supplies 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas.)
Energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten had indicated earlier this month that an extension was being seriously considered, stating in a tweet, “Plan A [closing all reactors by 2025] is ready and feasible, but reassessment is needed with Ukraine.”
From the prime minister: “This extension should make it possible to strengthen the independence of our country vis-à-vis fossil fuels in a chaotic geopolitical context,” read a March 19 statement from Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo’s office.
The statement added that negotiations must still be held with French utility Engie, which majority-owns and operates the Doel and Tihange plants through its Belgian subsidiary, Electrabel.
From Engie: In response, Engie said that it has “taken note” of the government’s decision and will study “the feasibility and the implementation conditions of the solutions envisaged at this stage.”
However, as the utility pointed out, “The decision to extend the Doel-4 and Tihange-3 nuclear power plants is linked to significant safety, regulatory, and implementation requirements, in particular because this extension would start when decommissioning operations on the other units have already started. This creates a risk profile that, due to its unforeseen nature and size, exceeds the normal activities of a private operator. The approach adopted should therefore allow for a structural alignment of the interests of the parties involved and an adequate distribution of risks and opportunities.”
Background: Belgium’s nuclear fleet consists of seven pressurized water reactors—four at Doel and three at Tihange. In 2003, legislation was passed limiting the operational lives of the reactors to 40 years and prohibiting new reactor construction. While the government later agreed to extend the lives of the three oldest units—Doel-1 and -2 and Tihange-1, all of which began commercial operation in 1975—the 2025 phaseout date remained in place.
Doel-4 and Tihange-3, the fleet’s youngest units, are 1,038-MWe pressurized water reactors that began commercial operation in 1985.