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Doubts remain over Belgium's plan to close nuclear power plants by 2025

Aerial illustration picture from a drone shows the Doel nuclear power plant, Tuesday 24 November 2020, in Doel, Beveren. BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM
06:58 07/09/2021

Belgium has committed to closing down its seven nuclear reactors by 2025 and has enshrined that decision in law. But while it is still technically feasible that the closure of the power plants will go ahead as planned, familiar obstacles such as cost and political ideologies may prevent it from happening.

Several factors suggest that the closures could still go ahead. One of the main issues, that of securing the country’s energy supply through other means, has been addressed to a certain extent.

The EU recently agreed on a financing mechanism, the Capacity Remuneration Policy (CRM), which enables power plants to be available for generating electricity when needed, in order to ensure the demand for electricity is always met. In exchange, the CRM provides payments to these power plants which are in addition to the earnings power plants gain by selling electricity on the energy market.

The CRM has essentially given the green light to providers in Belgium to pursue alternative energy projects without fear of future losses and to prepare to bid for contracts when the Belgian government opens its auction in October.

Several projects are known to be underway, and while there is a certain amount of secrecy surrounding them, it is common knowledge that several energy players have gas power plants projects at advanced stages. Some have already received their permit, while others remain blocked at this time.

The estimated capacity required in Belgium is not huge. The government has agreed to set the capacity to be reached at the October auction at 2.3 GW. This is the equivalent of three large gas-fired power plants. The total output of the projects currently being developed is expected to make it possible to reach this volume of production.

But the question of securing the volume of production is not everything. Politically, the move away from nuclear power towards gas powered plants is placing huge pressure on the federal government.

The nationalist New Flemish Alliance (NVA) is committed to doing everything possible to put obstacles in the way of new gas-fired power plant projects. The Flemish Minister for the Environment, Zuhal Demir, believes that building gas power plants does not fit with the environmental objectives of Flanders and the province of Brabant has just refused a permit to Engie for a major gas-fired power plant in Vilvoorde.

In addition, the liberal French-speaking Reformist Movement (MR) believes that, in the context of the climate emergency, it is absurd to do replace nuclear power stations with new gas-fired power plants which will emit  more CO2. Georges-Louis Bouchez, the president of MR, has made no secret of his intention to extend the lifespan of two nuclear reactors beyond the cut-off date of 2025.

Then there are the financial implications. It's explicitly stated in the government agreement that "the impact on electricity prices" of ending nuclear power in Belgium will be examined. Meanwhile, the price of gas continues to rise and opponents of the move away from nuclear point out that this could lead to higher electricity bills in Belgium should the closure plan go ahead. In addition, the compensation paid out through the CRM is expected to cost €250m a year.

However, extending the lifespan of nuclear power plants and bringing them into compliance with the new standards will also be costly and even in the event of an extension, it will be necessary to finance a reduced version of the CRM.

The energy providers themselves have chosen to watch from the side lines while these arguments rage. Many observers say that Engie/Electrabel, the main operator of nuclear power plants, does so from a position of strength. Should an extension be granted, the company – which has already said that it is too late to extend the life of two reactors – will be in a position to negotiate the most advantageous conditions for itself. If the complete closure plan goes ahead, the company will also be well-placed to demand a distribution of the gigantic costs of the dismantling that will follow to ensure the shift away from nuclear goes smoothly and safely.

Written by Nick Amies