The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation:Belgium


One of the main characteristics of the country is that it has no natural gas, no uranium, no oil, and very limited hydroresources. For this reason, it is fair to say that since 1993, when the last Belgian coal mine was closed, and as far as energy stocks are concerned, Belgium is effectively an energy-dependent country for almost 100 %. Only the currently small amount of renewable energy sources used in the country reduces the import dependency to somewhat less than 100 %. Based on what has been said before, Belgium is highly dependent on foreign countries for its energy supply and, therefore, it has to integrate its energy policy into a larger framework on the international level. Working toward this goal implies finding a dependable energy supply on viable economic conditions that also sustains environmental quality (Belgium IAEA Country File 2002).

Belgium has seven PWR units in operation in 2014 with a total capacity of 5,943 MWe. Nuclear production of electricity was about 43.4 TWh in 2007, rep- resenting 54 % of the total production of electricity in that year and 43.35 TWh in 2008, representing 50.76 % of the total for that year. In 2013, the total generation of electricity in the country and the generation of electricity generated by nuclear power are included in Table 8.7. The generation of electricity using nuclear energy in 2013 represented 52.08 % of the total electricity generation in the country in that year. This level of generation of electricity using nuclear energy is a little big higher (1.32 %) that the one reported in 2008.

From Table 8.8, the following can be stated: The nuclear power sector is by large the most important sector in the production of electricity in the country with more than 50 % of the produced electricity in 2013. For this reason, the implementation of the phase-out policy adopted by the Belgian government without having a clear and competitive energy alternative will have a negative impact on the electricity price, in the commitment of the government regarding the Kyoto Protocol, will increase the need to import more electricity from other countries, and will increase the dependency of Belgium from energy external sources for the production of electricity. The dependency of the country of external energy sources for the production of electricity is clearly shown in Table 8.9. The implementation of the phase-out policy could increase this dependency significantly.

However, it is important to highlight that the balance of electricity exchanges does not mean that Belgium is not able to provide its own electricity generation most of the time, although it is becoming more difficult to cover its own peak. The margin has decreased dramatically over the last years due to the increased

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0213

demand, on the one hand, and the almost halted investments in dispatchable power plants, on the other. The exchanges are related to the prices in neighboring countries versus those in Belgium and a better functioning of the global French– Belgian–Dutch electricity market due to enhanced transmission capacity and a change of the capacity allocation on the French–Belgian border.

The Energy Policy in Belgium

The Belgian’s energy policy was prepared on the basis of a balanced mixture of contributing elements. These elements are the following: First, if important post- Kyoto carbon-reduction limits are pursued, energy savings will have to be an important component of the Belgian’s energy policy. Then, a diversity of primary energy sources and conversion technologies should be opted for, with a cost-effective integration of renewables, whereby the cost-effectiveness is best geared by carbon prices rather than absolute objectives. Given the existing constraints and the costs reported, taking into account all hypotheses and uncertainties involved and based on the combination of scientific, technical, and economic arguments, can be concluded that in case that a nuclear phase-out policy is implemented, the expected post-Kyoto constraint is likely to be extremely expensive and strongly perturbing for the Belgium economic industry. Even after having incurred a major part of the very high costs, the risks of not satisfying a reliable energy provision under the assumed constraints are indeed very large (D’haeseleer 2007).

The current Belgium energy policy focuses on the reduction of greenhouse gases in order to reach the agreed quota foreseen by the Kyoto Protocol, which is in the case of Belgium, a reduction of 7.5 % from the 1990s level. In order to fulfill its inter- national obligations, the government has taken different measures, such as a reduction of taxes to promote the use of clean energy, energy saving in industry, transport, and households, as well as the promotion of the construction of large wind farms offshore with a capacity between 6 and 10 % of the national electricity generation.

However, and spite of all measures adopted and the goodwill of the government, it will be very difficult for Belgium to achieve the Kyoto Protocol goals, and the existence of the nuclear phase-out law is not helping meet this target, even when taking into account that the nuclear phase-out law in Belgium will begin to be implemented in 2015, after the first Kyoto Protocol commitment period ended. After having utilized the other solution paths, such as energy savings and renew- able energy to a maximum reasonable extent, substantial relief of this extremely heavy task to reduce domestic CO2 emissions can be further obtained, if carbon capture and storage (CCS) would be available or if nuclear power were allowed to continue operation beyond 2015 and 2025 (D’haeseleer 2007).

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 twenty-first cen- tury. It also announced that all nuclear power reactor lifetimes would be limited to 40 years and banned further reprocessing. The Ampere 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 January 31, 2003, on the phase-out of nuclear energy for the purposes of the industrial production of electricity, which prohibited the build- ing 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 2030 set up by the government indicated that a fundamental review of energy policy was required and in particular that nuclear power should be utilized 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, denying Belgium of a cheap way of meeting the country’s CO2 emission reduction targets, and increase import dependency. For this reason, the operating lives of the seven nuclear units now in operation in the country should be extended.

In October 2009, the government received a further report from a commissioned panel recommending a ten-year life extension for the three oldest nuclear power reactors currently in operation until to 2025 and a 20-year life extension for the other four units. The government then agreed to postpone the phase-out by ten years, so that it does not begin before 2025. This would allow the licensing of reactor life extensions, and GdF-Suez expected to invest about €800 mil- lion for this purpose. GdF-Suez also agreed to subsidize the use of renewable energy sources for the generation of electricity 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 government expected that the delay in closure all nuclear power reactors would guarantee security of supply, limit the production of carbon dioxide, and allow the country to maintain prices that protect consumer purchasing power and the competitiveness of Belgian 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 should be implemented closing three nuclear power reactors by 2015 and the others by 2025, if adequate power could be secured from other sources and prices would not rise unduly. According to the decision adopted, in July 2012 the 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 fortieth anniversary in 2015, is to be permitted to operate until 2025 to avoid the risk of blackouts. The other four nuclear power reactors are not immediately affected by the decision, though they will reach 40 years in 2022 and 2025. In May 2010, CREG estimated the cost of producing electricity from Belgian nuclear power plants between €1.7 and €2.1 cents per kWh, including fuel cycle, operating, depreciation, and provisions for decommissioning and waste management.

In mid-2013, the government approved an energy plan which will subsidize gas-fired generation and offshore wind capacity with taxes from nuclear power. Investors have been deterred from investing in planned 800 MWe of gas-fired power plant by the relatively low cost of nuclear power and the grid priority of renewables input.

The Nuclear Phase-Out Law

According to Morales Pedraza (2012), it is important to highlight that the circumstances under which the nuclear phase-out law was adopted in 2003 have indeed changed significantly in the past years; now the urgency for climate change actions are becoming more apparent and the era of very cheap oil and gas prices is almost certainly behind us, despite the reduction of oil prices registered in the past few months of 2014. This new situation forces a reconsideration of the overall Belgian energy policy, including the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation in the future.

By the Federal Act of January 31, 2003, the Belgium authorities decided to abandon the use of nuclear energy for electricity production. This was done by prohibiting the building of new nuclear power plants and by limiting the opera- tional period of the existing ones to 40 years. The Act does not affect the operation of research facilities and does not rule out the use of the fusion technology for the generation of electricity in the future.

Despite of the phase-out law adopted by the Belgium authorities, power upgrades of the existing nuclear power reactors through steam generator replacement, turbine refurbishments, among other activities are authorized. However, in this case a license adaptation application should be submitted to the competent national authorities for approval.

A careful examination of the explanatory memorandum and the phase- out law shows that many arguments used to justify the phase-out policy do not stand up to serious scientific scrutiny. Even stronger, particular arguments made by the Ampere Commission have been taken out of context and have been made improper use of it in order to justify the end. In any case, the most worrisome element of the phase-out law is that the consequences of the implementation of this law have not been fully investigated. Taking into account the present cir- cumstances, the overall situation on the international energy scene has changed dramatically: The substantially risen fossil fuel prices in the past years and the unstable geopolitical situation have a severe impact on the security of supply and accelerate climate change. This added to the fact that a careful evaluation at the time would have shown that a nuclear phase out would already have been extremely challenging, makes it almost impossible now to keep the closure calendar as foreseen in the law (D’haeseleer 2007).

A summary of the cost associated with the implementation of the nuclear phase-out law adopted by the Belgium government is the following: One of the main reasons why a nuclear phase-out is so expensive are the expected imposed GHG-reduction obligations that Belgium will have to face by 2030. In addition:

• Belgium gives up a cheap way to reduce CO2 emissions domestically12;

• Phasing out 6,000 MW of cheap base-load capacity will lead to an increase in electricity prices;

• Allowing nuclear power plants to continue would allow the state to negotiate a concession fee;

• Giving up nuclear power will increase the country import dependency;

• This reduced security of supply has a cost;

• By postponing decommissioning of the nuclear power reactors, the decommissioning fund will grow substantially;

• Although not really an actual cost, letting a future government negotiate with nuclear power plant owners by using the “carrot” of a nuclear operational extension can keep certain elements of the energy system under the control of the Belgian authorities (D’haeseleer 2007).

Summing-up can be stated that considering the major challenges faced by the Belgian energy economy, it must be concluded that, especially in the light of the very stringent GHG-reduction efforts expected, an actual implementation of the Belgian nuclear phase-out law turns out to be expensive, as too much opportunity will be missed, and Belgium will have to pay a substantial amount for the premature closure of its nuclear power plants.

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0214

Figure 8.11 shows that postponing the decommissioning of the nuclear power plants in Belgium from 40 to 60 years will not only increases the decommission- ing fund, but makes this activity cheaper.

The pink curve shows the costs for an operation period of 40 years and the dark-blue curve the same, but considering a period of 60 years. In total, the area under the pink curve represents the amount needed for decommissioning after

40 years, whereas the area under the dark-blue curve represents the amount needed for decommissioning after 60 years.13 From Fig. 8.11 it can be concluded that there is an important saving by postponing in 20 years the decommissioning of the nuclear power plants currently in operation in Belgium, and this important element should be taken into consideration by the current Belgian’s government.

Finally, it is important to highlight the following: Belgium’s nuclear regulator has outlined a two-step review process for ELECTRABEL’s safety case report for the restart of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 units. These two nuclear power reactors have been offline since 2012 because of concerns about defects in their reactor pressure vessels. GdF-Suez—ELECTRABEL’s parent—has said that “it hopes to submit a dossier to the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) in late autumn in order to obtain permission for a restart of Doel 3 and Tihange 2.” FANC and BEL V will carry out a two-step review of ELECTRABEL’s safety case report. In the first step, a review will be made about the relevance of the methodology proposed by ELECTRABEL. Depending on the conclusions of that review, FANC and BEL V will then inform ELECTRABEL whether its safety case report for the restart of the reactors is eligible for review.

Doel 3 and Tihange 2 were taken offline in 2012 when ultrasound testing suggested the possible presence of cracks in their reactor vessels. Further investigations indicated that the defects are so-called “hydrogen flakes” and were introduced during the manufacturing process. FANC allowed ELECTRABEL to restart the units last May, requesting that further tests be conducted to evaluate the effect over time of these flakes. In March, ELECTRABEL brought forward planned out- ages for the two units after additional tests on hydrogen flakes suggested these may affect the mechanical properties of their reactor vessels. These outages were originally expected to last about six weeks, but the reactors remain offline await- ing the results of further tests.

FANC and BEL V have now put together an international review board to examine the results of these mechanical resistance tests. The expert panel is expected to review the relevance of ELECTRABEL’s translation of these test results to the pressure vessels of Doel 3 and Tihange 2. While the expert panel studies the test results, FANC, Bel V, and testing and inspection services company AIB-Vinçotte will review the methodology proposed by ELECTRABEL for its safety case report. This means that the licensee will have to draw up its safety case report in correspondence with the methodology approved by the regulatory body. FANC will then analyze the safety case in depth and will take a decision whether to approve the operation of these units or adopt another position.

Electricity Generation Using Nuclear Energy

According to IAEA sources, the electricity production activity is totally liberalized in Belgium. Three categories of electricity producers can be distinguished:

Electricity companies: In 2002, they cover 97.9 % of the domestic production.

The most important producers are the private company ELECTRABEL and the public company SPE. Some smaller units (mainly cogeneration and renewables) are owned by distributors or newly founded companies;

Auto-producers: They generate electricity themselves to cover their own needs.

They are mainly active in the chemistry and metallurgy sectors and represent 1.5 % of the total electricity production;

Autonomous producers: They are mainly active in the service sector and pro- duce electricity as a complementary activity (e.g., in the framework of waste incineration) for resale to a third party. They are mainly active in the service sector and represent only 0.6 % of the total electricity production (Belgium WANO 2008).

The evolution of the nuclear net power capacity in the country during the period 1970–2014 is shown in Fig. 8.12. According to this figure, the nuclear capacity of the country during the period 1980–2014 increased 3.38-fold.

The evolution of the generation of electricity in Belgium using nuclear energy as fuel during the period 2008–2012 is shown in Fig. 8.13.

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0215

According to Fig. 8.13, the generation of electricity in Belgium using nuclear energy during the period 2008–2012 dropped 11.3 %. It is expected that the generation of electricity using nuclear energy in the country will continue decreasing during the coming years, as a result of the implementation of the phase-out policy adopted by the government.

The location of the Belgium nuclear power plants is shown in Fig. 8.14. The Tihange nuclear power plant is shown in Fig. 8.15.

The Public Opinion

The Belgium government adopted a decision, in 1999, to phase-out nuclear power altogether started in 2015. According to this decision, the closure of all nuclear power reactors should conclude in 2025. However, the Ampere Commission in its report presented a recommendation to the Belgian’s government “to keep the nuclear option open by maintaining the scientific and technological potential needed to ensure optimal conditions for safety and performance, by preserving the national know-how on nuclear energy and by participating in mostly private-sector research and development on future reactor types” (see Ampere Commission report).

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0216

As in other European countries, in Belgium the current debates regarding the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation cover different issues such as the climate change, energy supply security, the safety of the nuclear power reactors in operation, the management of the high-level radioactive nuclear waste, among others. As the impacts of climate change and the vulnerability of the Belgium economy to foreign fuel imports become more evident, it is likely that the gradual shift in public opinion will further develop toward less skepticism or even in favor of the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation.

Of course, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident represented a major setback on the popularity of nuclear energy in Belgium and facilitated the implementation of the nuclear phase-out policy adopted by the government some years ago.

Looking Forward

On July 1999, the new Belgian government announces the closure of all nuclear power reactors when they reach their 40-year lifetime. At the same time, a morato- rium on reprocessing of nuclear spent fuel was adopted. In December 2001, an agreement was reached between the Belgian government and the electricity sector in financing the dismantling of old nuclear power reactors at the Mol site, and on the management of the provisions for spent nuclear fuel disposal and dismantling of the nuclear power reactors at the end of their lifetime.

In January 2003, the Belgian Senate approved the legislation on phasing out all nuclear power reactors no later than 40 years from the date on which operations started. This decision will lead to a decrease in nuclear electricity generation and an increase of the share of fossil-fueled power plants, especially through the construction of new combined-cycle gas turbine units. However, the law adopted by the Senate does not affect the operation of nuclear research facilities and does not rule out the use of the fusion technology for electricity generation in the future, when this new nuclear technology for the production of electricity is available. It is important to note that the phase-out law adopted by the Senate can only be over- ridden by new legislation adopted by this organ or by a government decision based on a recommendation from the regulator, if Belgium’s security of energy supply would be threatened by the closure of the nuclear power reactors.

In 2007, the Commission on Energy Policy 2030 set up by the government to study the energy policy adopted, reach the conclusion that “a fundamental review of energy policy was required and, in particular, that nuclear power should be utilized long-term in order to meet CO2 reduction commitments, enhance energy security and maintain economic stability.” It also concludes 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 power reactors should be extended.”

According to this report, giving up nuclear power increases Belgian’s import dependency, roughly from about 65 % to an overall 90–95 %. This leads to two extra cost issues:

• A reduction of energy security of supply, with sometimes instantaneous power dependency of more than 95 %, making the country more vulnerable to interruptions in continued delivery, especially of gas, and to an increase in energy cost;

• Whereas nuclear power is characterized by a rather cheap fuel cost, maintenance and part of the construction cost can be considered as domestic costs, gas dependence must be imported, leading to a higher burden on the country finan- cial balance (D’haeseleer 2007).

It is important to highlight the following. In 2009, the Belgian government deferred his plans of closing all of its nuclear power plants for another ten years, but the generating utilities should pay for this postponement. The Belgian government, at the same time, decided to authorize the functioning of its first three nuclear power reactors, Doel I, Doel II, and Tihange I, until 2025, ten years longer than those under the current law. It is also important to note that this law, which was adopted in 2003, provides the withdrawal also of the rest of the nuclear power reactors when they reach the 40 years’ service. The law also prohibited the construction of new nuclear power reactors. The new decision reached after a proposal by the Belgian Minister of Energy, based on the technical report GEMIX commissioned by the government to meet better energy distribution and to achieve security of supply with stable prices during the period 2020–2030. Nuclear energy produced in 2013 represented 52.08 % of the total electricity consumed in the country.

The study indicates that “if current nuclear power reactors are closed, then this action would jeopardize the security of supply and would not reduce CO2 emissions.” The report mentions also the possibility for a later extension of the functioning of the three units ten years more; this mean until 2035 and the other four units by 20 additional years of operation. The government will request the operator, the TRACTEBEL Company, an annual financial contribution to the state budget between €215 and €245 million during the period 2010–2014, and the commitment to invest in improvements in energy efficiency, capture and storage of CO2 and the use of renewable energy. The exact amount will be negotiated with a Monitoring Committee recently created on the basis of the energy price evolution in the market. The GdF-Suez, owner of TRACTEBEL, has declared that is taking note of the government’s communication and confirmed its desire to complete the negotiations, as soon as possible, although in principle is not accepting the con- cept of the proposed contribution. The new fund will be used by the government to develop these above-mentioned plans.

Finally, it is important to highlight the following: Doel 4 shutdown automatically on 5 August following the loss of oil in its steam turbine. Initial inspections found that the lubricant had been discharged through a valve which had probably been left open by a worker. This led to significant damage to the turbine. Plant owner and operator ELECTRABEL said on 15 December that repairs to the unit’s steam turbine are nearly finished. Following the repair of various components in Germany and the turbine’s reassembly, in the final phase, the shaft is being aligned as this is critical to the correct operation of the turbine. Good progress in the repair of the unit has been made, and it has brought forward the expected restart date for Doel 4 from December 31 to December 21, 2014.

In order to avoid similar accident, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) proposes the adoption of that additional security and safety measures to make the unit’s restart possible. Following the incident, FANC immediately put in place additional security measures in order to prevent a similar incident happening again. One of these measures was the so-called “four eyes principle”, which states that plant operators in certain areas can only work in pairs. FANC has now called for further measures to be taken, which will be introduced at all of Belgium’s nuclear power plants. These include the placement of a large number of additional cameras and changes to the badging system. In addition, FANC has also demanded further safety measures, such as additional checks on the correct con- figuration of safety equipment and emergency systems.

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