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New tensions around Belgian nuclear power

Despite being put under pressure by Engie, the De Croo government remains on course for the (conditional) end of the atom in 2025.

Max HELLEFF

Despite being put under pressure by Engie, the De Croo government remains on course for the (conditional) end of the atom in 2025.

From our correspondent, Max Helleff (Brussels) – Bart De Wever insists: Belgium must continue to invest in nuclear energy. This weekend, the Flemish nationalist leader estimated that the country will soon become “the most polluting energy producer in Europe, after Poland” and that the closure of power stations will be accompanied by “huge price increases” for consumers and businesses.

The exit of the chairman of the N-VA, the main opposition party to the government of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, was no accident. It comes in the wake of a statement by Engie, the manager of the Belgian nuclear fleet, who threatens to cease all investment if pledges are not given. Engie demands a clear position from the De Croo government before the end of this year on the possible extension beyond 2025 of the two most recent plants, otherwise it will not continue with compliance and safety work. The French energy group will not buy the fuel (fissile material) necessary for the operation of the reactors.

A 2003 law fixes Belgium’s abandonment of the atom at 2025. However, the closer this deadline is, the more the question is debated. She rotted the life of the ex-Michel government for four years. The new executive led by the liberal Alexander De Croo has however planned the parade: the most recent nuclear reactors will be able to continue operating beyond 2025 if necessary. The decision on their extension will be taken at the end of 2021.

However, this period is considered too long by Engie who does not want to invest capital to be told in a year that the end of the Belgian atom has been definitively recorded. The political context has also changed: the Flemish ecologist Tinne Van der Straeten has replaced at the head of the Ministry of Energy Marie-Christine Marghem, a prominent figure of the Reform Movement (French-speaking liberal), a party that has emerged throughout the previous legislature divided on the fate to be reserved for nuclear power.

For now, it’s “no pasaran”. The majority parties are closing ranks around their government agreement which maintains the end of nuclear power in 2025 while giving themselves until November 2021 for a possible extension of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 (the equivalent of 2 gigawatts). Opposite, the opposition is flexing its muscles: “The ideological management of this issue is plunging Belgium into major energy insecurity. At a time when the absolute urgency is the trajectory towards carbon neutrality, the Greens are going so far as to shut down the most recent nuclear power plants and replace them with new polluting gas plants. Such a waste !”.

Bart De Wever leads the assault by proposing an alternative majority that would overturn the 2003 law. At least two arguments work in his favor. One: 50% of Belgian electricity comes from nuclear power and renewable energies are not sufficiently present to compensate for a complete shutdown of the plants. Two: if the end of the atom were to result in a heavier bill for the consumer, the latter could definitely side with the pro-nuclear.

The unions are also worried. They fear that plant personnel will find themselves trapped by a sudden decision by Engie to stop investing. In turn, put under pressure, the French energy company would undertake to study two scenarios: the extension, but also the end of nuclear power.


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