Belgian think tank Horizon 238 on 21 August addressed a letter to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo asking him “to reconsider the nuclear phase-out”, which became official policy 18 years ago. The Horizon 238 website says the initiative “began with a group of colleagues from the nuclear industry who were also friends outside of work, but quickly grew to include members of other professions”. The letter expressed concern “about preserving a prosperous and sustainable world for future generations” and noted that Belgium “is about to make a decision that will irreversibly shape its energy landscape for decades to come, and which will undoubtedly become one of the most significant chapter of your government’s legacy”.
Citing the latest IPCC report, the letter said CO2 emissions need to be reduced by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990, and carbon neutrality must be achieved by 2050. “We, Belgian citizens, emitted 90 million tons of CO2 in 2019” and this has not changed over the last five years. Fossil fuels still accounted for more than 80% of Belgium's total energy consumption in 2019. “Yet the climate priority dictates the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and to use alternative low-carbon energy sources: renewables are an option for sure; and so is nuclear energy.” The government's decision to phase out nuclear energy and to finance new fossil gas power plants “is therefore paradoxical and counterproductive”.
The letter says the belief that NPPs need to be shut down for renewable energy to be developed “is simply a false dilemma”. It adds: “Our support for nuclear power comes from an honest observation: renewables are a cornerstone of the energy transition, yet on their own they will not be sufficient to decarbonise our society in time. This is all the more true for Belgium, a densely populated country with limited hydro, wind and solar resources.”
The debate on nuclear energy “has too often been dominated by dogmatism and emotion rather than pragmatism and reason”. In the wake of the tenth anniversary of Fukushima, the United Nations published a report stating that the nuclear accident had had no adverse effects on the health of the inhabitants of Fukushima. By comparison, fossil fuels “are responsible for the deaths of seven million people worldwide every year”, the letter notes.
“We therefore ask you, Mr Prime Minister, to implement a long-term policy based on figures and facts. We ask you to put the common interest first and to consider only decarbonised solutions. We ask you to work for a sustainable future where we can tell our children and grandchildren that the choice of reason was made.”
The physical reality is crystal clear: each country must reduce its emissions as much as possible. “Furthermore, a lifetime extension of our nuclear power plants would also reinforce our security of supply. Limiting massive imports of gas and electricity would lower the dependence on other countries and the volatility of costs that can be harmful to our industry.”
Belgium has the luxury of cutting-edge expertise in nuclear power acquired through 60 years of innovation, construction and operation. “Our country has the opportunity to use this expertise to prepare its future more serenely. Today, the MYRRHA project developed at the Belgian nuclear research centre, is a research pioneer for recycling nuclear waste. In the near future, Belgian nuclear engineering could take the forefront of the hydrogen economy and of the deep decarbonisation of industrial sectors that are difficult to electrify, leveraging new, more versatile and more sustainable nuclear technologies.”
The letter says it is clear that the nuclear industry still has much to offer if given the opportunity. “A precipitous phase-out from nuclear energy in 2025 will result in the irreversible loss of an invaluable asset in the fight against climate change”. The government’s responsibility is “to look at the energy transition as a whole, beyond the development of renewable energies”.
It notes: “Our wish, Mr Prime Minister, is that the political choices made 18 years ago be re-evaluated. We ask you to reconsider the nuclear phase-out. Because it is a low-carbon energy source, nuclear energy must be part of the energy transition roadmap. A ten-year extension of the most recent nuclear reactors goes beyond a reduction of our CO2 emissions. It is the prerequisite for maintaining the Belgian expertise necessary to benefit from technological revolutions that the nuclear sector still has to offer. Given today’s profoundly different context, the nuclear phase-out law passed in 2003 must be reviewed.”
Horizon 238 is “convinced that renewable energies will be at the centre of this transition to a low-carbon world. However, they will need another energy source to form a clean energy mix, without fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal). One energy can fulfil this role: nuclear power.”
The law on the gradual phase-out of nuclear energy in Belgium was passed in 2003. However, Research in Belgium has actively contributed to the development of new technologies ready to meet the challenges posed: waste management, nuclear safety, and production flexibility, but the 2003 law will deprive Belgium of a low-carbon energy: nuclear power.
“Concretely: Extending Doel 4 and Tihange 3 would maintain the expertise of Belgium’s industry and leave us with a valuable option: that of using new nuclear technologies to decarbonise our society. Modernising the 2003 law is possible since Sweden did the same in 2010.”
Belgium’s reactors are expected to shut down by 2025