Nuclear Power in Belgium
(Updated May 2013)
- Belgium has seven nuclear reactors generating about half of its electricity.
- Belgium's first commercial nuclear power reactor began operating in 1974.
- There has been little government support for nuclear energy, and nuclear power generation incurs a EUR 0.5 cent/kWh tax.
Electricity production in Belgium was about 89 billion kWh (TWh) in 2011. Of this, in TWh, 48.2 was from nuclear, 23.8 natural gas, 6.0 biofuels and wastes, 5.5 coal, 2.3 wind, 1.4 hydro, 1.5 solar, 0.6 other. Imports were net 2.5 TWh.
Electricity consumption in Belgium has grown from 5800 kWh per capita in 1990 to about 8000 kWh in 2010. Nuclear energy typically provides half of the country's domestically-generated electricity.
Most Belgian electricity is produced by Electrabel, a subsidiary of GDF Sueza, which also operates all the nuclear plants. Electrabel owns half of Tihange 1; 89.8% of Tihange 2 & 3 and Doel 3 & 4; and 100% of Doel 1 and 2. The other 50% of Tihange 1 is held by EDF, and SPEc owns the remaining 10.2% of Tihange 2 & 3 and Doel 3 & 4. EDF acquired a 51% stake in SPE in 2009.
Recent Belgian nuclear energy policy
In 1999, the Belgian government appointed the AMPERE commission (Commission d'Analyse des Modes de Production d'Électricité et de Redéploiement des Énergies) to report on electricity demand and options for meeting it in the 21st century. It also announced that reactor lifetimes would be limited to 40 years, and banned further reprocessing. The Commission reported in 2000 that nuclear power was important to Belgium and recommended its further development.
However, due to political factors in the governing coalition, the Belgian Senate approved the Federal Act of 31 January 2003, which prohibited the building of new nuclear power plants and limited the operating lives of existing ones to 40 years (to 2014-2025). This can be overridden by a recommendation from the electricity and gas regulator (Commission de Régulation de l'Électricité et du Gaz, CREG) if Belgium's security of supply is threatened.
In 2007, the Commission on Energy 2030d energy policy study set up by the government said that a fundamental review of energy policy was required and in particular that nuclear power should be utilised long-term in order to meet carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction commitments, enhance energy security and maintain economic stability. It also said that the 2003 phase-out decision should be reconsidered as it would double the price of electricity, deny Belgium a cheap way of meeting the country's CO2 emission reduction targets and increase import dependency. Instead, the operating lives of the seven nuclear units should be extended.
In October 2009, the government received a further report from a commissioned panele. This recommended a ten-year life extension for the three oldest nuclear power reactors to 2025 and a 20-year life extension for the other four. The government then agreed to postpone the phase-out by ten years, so that it does not begin before 20253. This would allow the licensing of reactor life extensions, and GDF Suez expects to invest about €800 million towards this. However, the operators contribute a special tax of €215-245 million per year over 2010-14 for the concession (0.5 Euro cents/kWh), and more thereafter. GDF Suez also agreed to subsidise renewables and demand-side management by paying at least €500 million for both, and it must maintain 13,000 jobs in energy efficiency and recycling. The Energy & Climate Change minister said that the delay in closure "would guarantee security of supply, limit the production of carbon dioxide and allow us to maintain prices that protect consumer purchasing power and the competitiveness of our companies".
However, an election in April 2010 occurred before the agreed proposals were passed by parliament and the nuclear phase-out law remains in place. In October 2011 several political parties negotiating to form a new government agreed that the 2003 nuclear phase-out law closing three reactors by 2015 and the others by 2025 should be implemented if adequate power could be secured from other sources and prices would not rise unduly.
In July 2012 Belgium's Council of Ministers announced that Doel 1 and 2 were to close in 2015 after 40 years of operation. However, Tihange 1, which will also celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2015, is to be permitted to operate to 2025 to avoid the risk of blackouts. The other four Belgian reactors are not immediately affected by the decisions, though they will reach 40 years in 2022 and 2025. This announcement reneged on "firm commitments" made between the Belgian state and GDF-Suez in a 2009 memorandum of understanding, and came immediately after the nuclear regulator FANC ruled favourably on a technical report from GDF Suez subsidiary Electrabel on its preparation for the ten-year extensions.
The government said that it had rewritten the 2003 law on nuclear energy so that its current stance could not be changed by decree, and therefore the timing of the phase-out "is now final." This certainty "should create a favourable investment climate which will allow us to gradually phase out nuclear power," it said. As the owner and operator of the country's nuclear power plants supplying half the country’s electricity, Electrabel disagreed. It described the new shutdown dates as "blackmail", complaining that the attacks on the company and its 7000 staff were not justified. It also pointed out that operation of Tihange 1 to 2025 would require €500 million investment to satisfy safety regulators - an investment that would be hard to justify without "a vision and guarantees of profitability in ten years."
At the end of 2011 an industry-commissioned poll showed that 58% of Belgians favoured keeping nuclear power, but 62% wanted to reduce its share in the mix (from more than half). Some 69% thought it would be difficult to replace the nuclear share and 74% recognised that electricity prices would rise if nuclear was phased out.
In May 2010, CREG estimated the cost of producing electricity from Belgian nuclear power plants as 1.7-2.1 Euro cents/kWh, including fuel cycle, operating, depreciation, and provisions for decommissioning and waste management. This compared with the forward market price of 6 ¢/kWh and the market price for green energy certificates at 8.8-10.7 ¢/kWh.
Nuclear industry development
In 1962, Belgium's first small nuclear power reactor was commissioned at Mol – the 11 MWe prototype BR3 PWR, which was imported from the USA. This was the first pressurised water reactor (PWR) built in Europe.
In 1965, Synatom was formed as a syndicate for design of large nuclear power plants. It is now a subsidiary of Electrabel, which is part of the Energy Europe & International business unit of GDF Suez.
In 1966, the Franco-Belgian 305 MWe Chooz A prototype PWR was commissioned just across the border in France, and it was decided to build the Doel 1 & 2 and Tihange 1 reactors in Belgium, the last being a Franco-Belgian project. These were commissioned in 1974-75 and upgraded in 1985 to improve seismic and other safety. Chooz A was closed in 1991 and is being decommissioned by EDF.
In 1974, a further four reactors were ordered for Doel and Tihange sites. Doel is in Flanders (north) and Tihange is in Wallonia (south). It was decided in 1988 not to proceed with an eighth unit, which was to be a 1400 MWe N4 type at Doel jointly owned by Electricité de France (EDF) and Electrabel.
In addition, Electrabel has a 25% share in output of the two 1500 MWe Chooz B units (effectively adding 750 MWe) and 458 MWe of Tricastin operated by EDF in France. Reciprocally, EDF owns half of Tihange 1. Electrabel has also entered into a capacity swap arrangement with E.ON that includes E.ON acquiring drawing rights for 770 MWe of capacity from Doel 1, Doel 2 and Tihange 1; and Electrabel 700 MWe drawing rights from the Krümmel, Gundremmingen and Unterweser nuclear plants in Germany4.
Belgian companies provided about 80% of the systems and equipment for the country's nuclear facilities, though both Westinghouse and Framatome (now Areva) contributed.
The steam generators were replaced in Doel 2, 3 and 4 and Tihange 1, 2 and 3 between 1993 and 2004; and those of Doel 1 were replaced in 2009. Capacity uprates have also been carried out during this period.
In 2009, Electrabel began preparing the safety case for extending the operating lives of Doel 1 & 2 and Tihange 1 by ten years. In May 2010, Electrabel called for bids to replace the turbines at Doel 1 & 2 over 2011-15, including new instrumentation.
However, in 2012 Doel 3 and Tihange 2 were shut down due to concern about flaws in the reactor pressure vessels. After thorough investigations, Electrabel submitted a report to the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) confirming their structural integrity with significant margins. After requirements of FANC were met, it approved restarting the units in May 2013.
Operating Belgian power reactors
||Expected shutdown date
||mid 2012 legislation
The fuel cycle for Belgian nuclear plants is managed by Synatom (Société Belge des Combustibles Nucléaires), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Electrabel (although the government holds a golden share with special rights).
In 2008, Synatom announced a strategic partnership with Powertech for development of Powertech's U.S. uranium projects in the US states of Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming5. Synatom currently owns 19.6% of Powertech.
Synatom has an 11% share in the Eurodif enrichment facility on the Tricastin site in France. In 2008, Electrabel owner Suez (now GDF Suez) acquired a 5% ownership interest in Areva subsidiary Tricastin Enrichment Company (Société d’Enrichissement du Tricastin, SET), the company that owns the Georges Besse II uranium enrichment plantf,6.
Fuel fabrication is by Areva'a 700 t/yr FBFC (Franco-Belgian Fuel Fabrication) International Dessel plant. The facility includes a 200 t/yr MOX fuel fabrication building. The 35 t/yr Belgonucléaireg MOX plant, also at Dessel, closed in 2006 and is expected to be decommissioned by 2013. Mixed oxide (MOX) fuel has been used in Belgium since 1995 and the policy is to use all recovered plutonium from reprocessing for MOX fuel fabrication as quickly as possible.
The Eurochemic reprocessing plant at Dessel was built as a joint facility with 12 other OECD states. It operated 1966 to 1974 and it is now being dismantled by Belgoprocessh.
With Eurochemic closed, Synatom then contracted with Cogema (now Areva) for reprocessing used fuel at La Hague from 1976. However, political attitudes towards reprocessing changed in the late 1980s and, in 1993, parliament decided to suspend the 1990 reprocessing contract and to not negotiate any new reprocessing contracts. The once-through fuel cycle option was also given the same level of priority as reprocessing.
Radioactive waste management
The National Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials – ONDRAF/NIRAS – is responsible for the management of all radioactive materials in the country, including transport, treatment, conditioning, storage and disposal. Its main facility is at the Mol-Dessel site, run by its subsidiary Belgoprocess. Its costs are passed onto the producers of radioactive waste, notably the power companies. Utilities pay a levy on each kWh of electricity sold, which goes into a decommissioning and waste management fund, managed by Synatom.
A number of shipments of vitrified high-level waste from reprocessed Belgian fuel have taken place from La Hague in France. The wastes are stored at Dessel. However, following the 1993 political decision to suspend reprocessing activities, used fuel is currently stored at the nuclear power plants. Most of the country's high-level waste originates from the Eurochemic reprocessing plant.
In June 2006, the government decided that low-level and short-lived intermediate-level wastes would be disposed of in a surface repository at Desseli. The municipality of Mol had also been considered and expressed a willingness for the facility to be there.
Research on deep geological disposal of long-lived intermediate-level and high-level wastes is underway and focused on the clays at Mol. In 1980, construction of the Hades (High-activity disposal experimental site) underground research laboratory 225 m deep in the Boom clay commencedj. The management and operation of Hades is carried out by the Economic Interest Grouping EURIDICE (European underground research infrastructure for disposal of radioactive waste in a clay environment), which was set up by ONDRAF/NIRAS and the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK.CEN). The main objective of EURIDICE is to carry out the PRACLAY (Preliminary demonstration test for clay disposal of highly radioactive waste) project, which aims to demonstrate the feasibility of disposing of radioactive waste in deep clay layersk.
Decommissioning activities are now well advanced at several early nuclear facilities. These include:
- The 40 MWt BR3 prototype PWR reactor which was started up in 1962 and closed down in 1987 is being decommissioned by SCK.CEN (see end of Research and development below).
- The Franco-Belgian Chooz A in France was closed in 1991 and is being decommissioned by EDF.
- The Eurochemic reprocessing plant ended reprocessing activities in 1974 and decommissioning by Belgoprocess began in 1989. Scheduled for completion in 2012, it will become the world's first reprocessing plant to be decommissioned.
- Decommissioning of Belgonucleaire’s MOX fuel fabrication plant at Dessel is underway and expected to be completed by 2013.
Research and development
R&D is mainly carried out by the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK/CEN) at Mol. It runs the 100 MWt BR2 high-flux tank-type research reactor which started up in 1961 but has been modified since, and two small units. BR2 produces about 16% of the world's Mo-99/Tc-99m for medical usel.
In 1967, Belgium joined with Germany and Holland to build a 300 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalkar in Germany. The plant was completed but never run. Belgium also participated in France's Superphénix fast reactor, which operated between 1985 and 1996.
SCK.CEN is planning to build the Myrrha (Multipurpose Hybrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications) research reactor at Mol. Initially it will be a 57 MWt accelerator-driven system (ADS), consisting of a proton accelerator delivering a 600 MeV, 2.5 mA (or 350 MeV, 5 mA) proton beam to a liquid lead-bismuth (Pb-Bi) spallation target that in turn couples to a Pb-Bi cooled, subcritical fast nuclear corem. As an ADS it will be used to prove that technology and to study transmutation of long-lived radionuclides in nuclear waste. Later on it is intended to be run as a critical fast neutron facility, decoupling the accelerator and removing the spallation loop from the reactor core. Then Myrrha will be used for fuel research, for materials research for Generation IV reactors, and for the production of radioisotopes and doped silicon (an essential component of high-grade electronic circuits).
It is envisaged as a partnership of Belgium, the European Union, the European Investment Bank and other partners, with 70% of the funding from EU countries. Following an independent international evaluation7, Belgium approved its 40% share of the funding in March 2010 – about €384 million – which puts the project on course for construction start in 2015 and operation about 20238. A reduced-power demonstration model, Guinevere, became operational at Mol in March 2010.
In October 2010, SCK.CEN signed two international agreements to collaborate on the Myrrha project. The first is with the China Academy of Sciences, since China sees as Myrrha a way forward in treating nuclear wastes. The second is with Kazatomprom and the Kazakh National Nuclear Centre (NNC). SCK.CEN said that these agreements "constitute the first step towards these Asian countries' probable entry into the Myrrha consortium."9.
SCK.CEN has built up expertise in decommissioning through the BR3 decommissioning project. The 11 MWe BR3 was the first PWR in Europe and also, in 1987, became the first PWR in Europe to be shut down. In 1989, it was selected as a European Commission Framework Programme pilot project for the demonstration of decommissioning of PWR plants. The plant is due to be decommissioned by the end of 2011.
Regulation and safety
The Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) operates under the Minister of Interior. Its focus is on radiation safety, both occupational and public, under a 1994 Act which replaced a 1958 Act.
The private nuclear safety company Association Vinçotte Nuclear, formerly AIB-Vinçotte Nuclear (AVN), carried out technical assessment activities on behalf of FANC, and in April 2008, AVN was transferred into Bel V, which is the technical safety organization within FANC.
Belgium is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1975 as a non-nuclear weapons state. It is member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Additional Protocol in relation to its safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency was signed in 1998 and came into force in 2004.
a. In 1905, a group of electricity companies combined to form Scheldt Electricity Company, which in 1956 merged with three other companies to form Ebes. In 1990, Ebes merged its operations with those of Intercom and Unerg, forming Electrabel.
Meanwhile, in 1986, engineering consultancy Electrobel (note spelling: this is a separate organization to Electrabel) merged with engineering services provider Tractionel to form Tractebel. In the mid-1990s, Tractebel acquired a 40% stake in Electrabel.
A majority stake in Tractebel was held by Société Générale de Belgique (SGB – see Note b below), which in 1988 was taken over by Compagnie Financière de Suez, a predecessor company to Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. In 2003, Tractebel merged with SGB to form Suez-Tractebel, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Suez. By the end of 2003, Suez had increased its holding in Electrabel to 50.1% and, by July 2007, had acquired all the shares in the company. In the meantime, Electrabel operated as a subsidiary of Suez-Tractebel.
GDF Suez was formed by the merger of Gaz de France and Suez in July 2008. [Back]
b. Société Générale de Belgique (SGB) was the principal shareholder in Tractebel and by 1996 had built up a stake of over 65% in the company. This decreased to 50.3% a few months later during the merger of Tractebel and Powerfin (another SGB subsidiary). Then, in 1997, SGB owner Compagnie Financière de Suez merged with Lyonnaise des Eaux-Dumez to form Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux. The 2003 merger of Tractebel with SGB therefore brought full ownership of Tractebel into Suez.
c. While a series of mergers of private utilities by 1980 resulted in the three companies Ebes, Intercom and Unerg – which later merged to form Electrabel (see Note a) – all the public utilities regrouped to form SPE in 1979.
In 2005, UK-based utility Centrica formed a joint venture with Gaz de France (GDF) to acquire a 51% stake in SPE. Later in 2005, SPE merged with Luminus, the second largest energy supplier in Belgium to form SPE-Luminus. In 2008, Centrica acquired GDF's share of SPE-Luminus when, as part of the conditions attached to GDF's merger with Suez, GDF was required to dispose of its stake in SPE. In 2009, Centrica sold its stake in SPE-Luminus to EDF as part of a deal to buy a 20% stake in British Energy from EDF.
EDF holds its 51% stake in SPE-Luminus through EDF Belgium and Segebel, while the remaining 49% is owned by Publilec, Dexia Bank, Socofe, VEH, Ethias, Publilum and ALG.
SPE-Luminus owns 10% of nuclear capacity in Belgium and has rights to the output from another 5% of capacity. [Back]
d. The Commission on Energy 2030 was set up at the end of 2005 at the request of Marc Verwilghen, Federal Minister of Energy. Its final report1 was published in June 2007. [Back]
e. The GEMIX report2 published in October 2009 was commissioned by Belgian Minister for Climate and Energy Paul Magnette. See also: Nuclear needed in Belgium, World Nuclear News (2 October 2009). [Back]
f. The €3 billion Georges Besse II enrichment plant on the Tricastin site will eventually replace the neighbouring Georges Besse plant, operated by Eurodif. Georges Besse II is based on "ultra centrifuge technology", according to Areva, and is more efficient than gaseous diffusion, as used in the Georges Besse plant. Georges Besse II is is expected to reach full capacity (7.5 million SWU per year) by 2016. [Back]
g. Established in 1957, Belgonucléaire operated the P0 mixed oxide fuel plant at Dessel from its startup in 1973 (with commercial production in 1986) through to its closure in 2006. Belgonucléaire is half-owned by the Belgian government through the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK.CEN) and the other half of its ownership now comes under GDF Suez, following acquisitions of Tractebel and Electrabel. Belgonucléaire jointly owns the Belgatom architect and consulting engineering company founded in 1978. The majority owner in Belgatom was Tractebel but, following the restructuring under GDF Suez, Belgatom generally trades under the Tractebel Engineering name. [Back]
h. With a capacity of 60 tonnes per year, the Eurochemic reprocessing plant was uncompetitive and it was decided to temporarily close the facility in 1975. Eventually, the Belgian government agreed to take it over to supply domestic needs only and, in 1984, Belgoprocess was founded to manage the plant. However, in 1985, the decision was taken to not restart the plant and Belgoprocess was transferred to the Belgian National Agency for Radioactive Waste and Irradiated Fissile Materials (ONDRAF/NIRAS). [Back]
i. The decision to host a final low-and intermediate-level radioactive waste (LILW) repository at Dessel followed a very long process. In 1982, sea disposal of this waste was stopped, and the country began research into surface disposal in 1988. The NIROND 90-01 report published in 1990 stated that surface disposal is promising and NIROND 94-04 (1994) found it to be suitable. However, it provoked public protest and was rejected by the municipalities envisaged in the report.
Alternative disposal methods were studied from 1997 and NIROND 97-04 (1998) called for final disposal as opposed to interim storage on ethical grounds. In January 1998, the Council of Ministers opted for disposal with retrievability, with public participation in the decision-making processes. Two local partnerships – STORA, formerly STOLA (Dessel), and MONA (Mol) – put forward proposals; while a third – PaLoFF (Fleurus-Farciennes) – withdrew from the process following a decision in 2006 of the municipal council. In June 2006, the council of ministers decided to dispose of LILW in a surface disposal installation in the Dessel municipality. [Back]
j. Construction on the Hades underground research laboratory was started by the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK.CEN) in 1980 by sinking a shaft through the aquifer sands into the Boom Clay, up to 230 m deep. (The Boom Clay layer at Mol is 100 m thick and starts at a depth of 180 m.) The major phases in the development of Hades are the construction of: the first access shaft (1980-1982); the underground research laboratory (1982-1983); the experimental shaft and gallery (1983-1984); the extension of the URL with the test drift (1987); the second access shaft (1997-1999); the connecting gallery (2001-2002); and the PRACLAY gallery (2006-2007, see Note k below).
ONDRAF/NIRAS was created in 1981 and became operational in 1983. Since then, ONDRAF/NIRAS has gradually taken over the responsibility for nuclear waste disposal with SCK.CEN remaining the main research partner. In 1995, ONDRAF/NIRAS and SCK.CEN set up the Economic Interest Group (EIG) PRACLAY (Preliminary demonstration test for clay disposal of highly radioactive waste), which in 1997 became EIG EURIDICE (European underground research infrastructure for disposal of radioactive waste In a clay environment), to manage and operate Hades. [Back]
k. Information on the PRACLAY project is available on the EURIDICE website (www.euridice.be). [Back]
l. Due to supply constraints for molybdenum-99, in February 2010, SCK.CEN announced it would carry out modifications and increase the number of production days at BR2 in order to increase its Mo-99 production capacity by 50%. This could increase the proportion of Mo-99 production from BR2 to about 25% of world annual requirements. [Back]
m. See the MYHHRA section of the SCK.CEN website (http://myrrha.sckcen.be/). [Back]
1. Belgium's Energy Challenges Towards 2030, Commission ENERGY 2030 Final Report (19 June 2007) [Back]
2. Quel mix énergétique idéal pour la Belgique aux horizons 2020 et 2030 ?, Rapport final, Groupe Gemix (30 septembre 2009) [Back]
3. Belgium postpones nuclear phase-out, World Nuclear News (13 October 2009) [Back]
4. E.ON and GDF SUEZ finalise their swap of generation capacity in Europe, E.ON and GDF Suez news release (31 July 2009) [Back]
5. See the Strategic Partnership page on Powertech's website (www.powertechuranium.com) [Back]
6. SUEZ acquires an equity stake in AREVA’s new uranium enrichment plant, Areva and Suez press release (3 June 2008) [Back]
7. Independent evaluation of the MYRRHA project - Report by an international team of experts, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 6881, ISBN: 9789264991149 (2009) [Back]
8. Approval for Myhhra, World Nuclear News (5 March 2010) [Back]
9. Civilian nuclear research: Exchange of expertise between Kazakhstan and Belgium, SCK.CEN press release (25 October 2010) [Back]
Country Nuclear Power Profiles: Belgium, International Atomic Energy Agency
Nuclear Energy Agency Country Profiles: Belgium, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency
SCK.CEN website (www.sckcen.be)
ONDRAF/NIRAS website (www.nirond.be)
Synatom website (www.synatom.be)
Belgoprocess website (www.belgoprocess.be)
Bel V website (www.belv.be)
Belgonucleaire website (www.belgonucleaire.be)
Eurochemic website (www.eurochemic.be)