Belgian regulator opposes life extension of oldest reactors

9 March 2023

Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) has ruled out an extension of the three oldest nuclear plants - units 1&2 at Doel NPP and unit 1 at Tihange NPP. Instead FANC advises depending on Doel 4 and Tihange 3 to avoid power shortages.

Tihange 2 was shut down in January, and Doel 1&2 are due to be disconnected from the grid by 2025 in line with the 2003 nuclear phase-out law. Tihange 2 was the second reactor to close under the phase-out law - Doel 3 closed in September 2022. This left five reactors still in operation – Doel 1,2&4 and Tihange 1&3. In January, French power utility Engie-Electrabel reluctantly agreed to extend the operating lives of Doel 4 and Tihange 3, Belgium’s newest reactors - by 10 years from 2026 in face of the current energy crisis. Doel 1&2, both 445 MWe (net) pressurised water reactors (PWRs), began operating in 1974 and 1975. Tihange 1, a 962 MWe (net) PWR, began supply power in 1975, and is set to close in October 2025. Doel 4 and Tihange 3 are 1,030 MWe reactors that have been in service since 1985.

In February, the Federal Government asked Engie to investigate whether operation of Doel 1&2 and Tihange 1 could be extended until 2027. The extension of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 would not solve the expected energy shortage during those periods as they would be shut down for maintenance work.

FANC has now suggested an alternative to resolve Belgium's energy concerns - using Doel 4 and Tihange 3 during the winters of 2025 and 2026. The planned works could be carried out during the 2026 maintenance outage allowing the plants to operate through the winter. This reportedly followed further informal contacts with Engie during which the company acknowledged that the FANC proposal provides "an opportunity... as long as the new nuclear fuel will be available”.

Engie had opposed extending the three older power stations arguing that they may not meet modern safety regulations. FANC agrees that the safety concerns are justified and "the alternative scenario is preferred in terms of nuclear safety”.

FANC has recommended extending the life of Doel 4 and Tihange 3, but without stopping them for a full safety upgrade. Instead, they would be partially upgraded each summer beginning in 2025 to meet more stringent requirements over time, and remain available over the two winters. The Belgian government discussed the issue at a recent cabinet meeting and agreed to ask Electrabel to submit safety documents to FANC to assess the new plan.

Image: Doel nuclear power plant (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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