The energy crisis has countries across Europe questioning their nuclear phase-out policies, France, a country with a sizeable nuclear fleet, but where the technologies continued usage has been politically fraught has committed to expand its fleet, and is doing away with its commitment to limit the proportion of its grid that is powered by nuclear means. Finland recently turned on a new reactor to positive grid effect. Sweden has altered its energy target to encompass the possibility of new nuclear energy. German energy policy is floundering in the midst of its final exit from nuclear power, and an unclear future for grid reliability.
At the end of 2021, the Belgian government was set on a policy of nuclear exit, planning to decommission all seven of the country’s Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs). This decision was reached by the country’s seven party coalition government. To understand the magnitude of this policy, it is important to know that in 2021 the country produced more than half of its electricity from those seven reactors, in excess of 50,000 GWh.
To decide to simply replace fifty percent of a country’s electricity production in such a short time scale is frankly unreasonable and impractical. But I don’t need to tell you that, because the Belgian government has acknowledged as much.
The reactors are divided between two locations,with four located at the Doel Nuclear Power Station in Antwerp, and three at the Tihange Nuclear Power Station in Huy. Of the country’s seven reactors, five are currently in production. Doel 3, was taken out of service on September 23, 2022, and Tihange 2 stopped production on January 31st, 2023. The other 5 reactors were scheduled to be shut down in 2025.
Following the beginning of the war in Ukraine and commensurate rise in energy prices, the Belgian government decided in March of 2022 to postpone the shut down of two of Belgium’s reactors, Doel 4 and Tihange 3 both 1038 MW units.
In the announcement of the new plan, Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo said “For too long, our country has lacked vision,” and went on to say that, “this has caused a lot of uncertainty.” Uncertainty in energy policy is never good. People like to know that something as central and ubiquitous as electricity will continue to be reliable and affordable. Frequent and dramatic shifts in energy policy have their own consequences, and even making good decisions on short timelines can prove to be tricky.
That is why although the decision to keep these reactors was made in early 2022, the final agreement with Engie, the French utility that operates both nuclear power stations, was not reached until June of 2023. It has taken that time for the Belgian government and Engie to reach an agreement that creates a joint venture to manage the units, and set a price for future management of nuclear waste at 15 billion euros.
Although this plan only accounts for two of the five currently operational units in the country, it still shows a change in the tide of the issue. Price spikes and reliability concerns are forcing even adamantly anti-nuclear governments to reassess their positions in favor of a more prudent approach.
A significant contributor to the energy predicament plaguing much of Europe right now is degrowth, or the idea that we should be shrinking rather than growing economies, and a concomitant desire for lower energy production and consumption. The key problem with degrowth is that economic growth is one of the main contributors to human prosperity. A growing and healthy economy makes essentials like food and energy more affordable and readily available.
Energy has, of course, been a major target of these types of policies, and that is especially true in the case of nuclear phase-out policies that eschew reliable already built nuclear capacity in favor of constructing new and far less reliable renewable capacity in the name of an anti-scientific fear of nuclear power.
There is a rising understanding in Europe that degrowth policies come at a cost, and that the desire to reduce carbon emissions does not necessarily require voluntarily relinquishing the power capabilities that have enabled the rise of modern civilization. An energy policy paradigm that centers getting by with less, will resultantly be able to produce less.
Catalyst articles by Paige Lambermont | Full Biography and Publications