Belgium reaches agreement on nuclear exit

Belgium reaches agreement on nuclear exit
Tihange represents about 15% of total electricity production capacity in Belgium. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After a whole night of negotiations, Belgium’s relevant ministers finally reached an agreement on the country’s exit from nuclear energy.

The nuclear power plants will close, reports De Standaard, after weeks of contentious debate about whether or not the closure of all seven reactors would cause energy shortages or price fluctuations.

Other concerns include the worry that Belgium will sacrifice energy sovereignty as it might have to depend on energy from other nations to make up for the shortfall in nuclear energy. This is particularly pertinent in the context of spiralling natural gas prices, which have more than doubled in the past year. This issue also has geopolitical implications given that Russia is Europe's primary supplier of the fossil fuel.

Plan A with added compromises

Belgium’s nuclear plants are managed by French energy company Engie and account for nearly half the country’s power production. The country was considering two different exit plans: Plan A is to close all plants; Plan B is to keep the two newest reactors open in case of shortages in supply.

An agreement has been reached to strengthen Plan A to close the nuclear power plants by 2025, and a revision of the nuclear phase-out law, long seen as an essential part of a compromise, will not take place.

But as part of the compromise, Belgium will invest in research into new, smaller modular nuclear power plants (SMRs) with a budget of €100 million, joining France and the Netherlands who also want to invest in similar research.

A new law on climate neutrality 2050 in the field of energy will be also drafted, which will determine the criteria that sustainable energy must meet, for example in terms of economic feasibility, CO2 emissions, waste and safety.

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Disagreement remains

Some political parties, like the French-speaking liberals (MR), are strongly opposed to the nuclear exit, while others like the Green party insist Belgium stick to the planned exit that was even codified in law.

The MR says the agreement doesn’t mean the end of nuclear power in Belgium is definitive, and a final decision won’t be made until March 2022 after reviewing a report from Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) on whether two reactors can remain on stand-by as a lifeline.

Engie/Electrabel have been saying for some time that such an extension has become impossible. The first nuclear power plant will close as soon as next year.

Interpretations of last night’s agreement have been mixed: Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten (Green) tweeted on Thursday that there is finally certainty with the switch to 100% renewable energy. Two minutes later, MR president Georges-Louis Bouchez replied that there is no certainty at all.

The agreement was reached after an overnight meeting between the top ministers, who explained their conclusions in a press conference on Thursday.

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