Belgium’s decision to restart two 40-year-old nuclear reactors is putting pressure on northern Europe’s political fault lines, with Germany announcing that it would send experts to inspect the plants.
Concerns have been stoked by the discovery of thousands of defects in the reactors’ pressure vessels, a fire, and one unresolved sabotage incident at the plants, which also border Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
In December, the Doel 3 reactor on the Dutch border had to be turned off just one week after it was switched back on, following repairs that lasted 21 months, due to a water leaking on a (non-nuclear) generator.
Two nearby cities, Maastricht in the Netherlands and Aachen in Germany, are said to be considering legal action to force plant safety – or closure, and on Tuesday the German environment minister waded into the row.
Barbara Hendricks said that she would accept the nuclear status quo “for now”, after Jan Jambon, the Belgian interior minister, refused her request for a joint environmental risk assessment at a meeting in Brussels. But she immediately took to twitter to express German frustrations.
“A transboundary assessment of the environmental impact should not only be mandatory when it comes to new builds of plants but also when the lifetime of aging nuclear power plants is being extended,” Hendricks tweeted.
A German press statement spoke of “significant deviations” from required safety procedures at the Tihange 2 plant on the Dutch border, and Doel 3, which is also close to Germany and Luxembourg.
Belgium depends on seven nuclear reactors for around 60% of its electricity, although it says it will phase these out by 2025.
After the Fukushima accident in Japan, Germany began mothballing its entire nuclear fleet, but some of its citizens fear they could still be at risk from nuclear accidents across the border with Belgium.
One of them, Simon Sybertz, a student in Aachen, said that fears among local people in the city were growing. “People are starting to realise whats happening across the border,” he said. “They’re scared because nobody is really prepared for something happening in Tihange. We don’t even have iodine. I want the Belgian government to shut the reactor.”
More than 825,000 people have signed an Avaaz petition calling for the two reactors to be mothballed. German government sources say that Hendricks told Jambon that if Brussels was serious about shutting its reactors, it should start now.
“We didn’t get the impression that the Belgians really have a plan to phase out nuclear within a fixed time schedule,” one source at Tuesday’s meeting told the Guardian.
European nuclear industry groups insist that plant safety is a strictly national affair under EU law, and say that EU stress tests of three Belgian nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster – as well as Belgium’s more recent examinations of its reactors – should give confidence in plant safety.
Jean-Pol Poncelet, the director general of Foratom, Europe’s nuclear trade association, said that Belgian reactors were “considered safe not just by the Belgian authorities but by their partners in the EU”.
“It is amazing to see that there are complaints from the Netherlands,” he said. “The Dutch are operating a reactor in Borssele which is expected to run longer than the Belgian ones – they recently received permission to operate for up to 60 years!”
The Dutch environment minister, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, recently declaredher “certainty” that the plant was now safe.
One international expert who has advised the Austrian government on reactors situated across its borders, told the guardian that there was no question of an imminent reactor failure in Belgium.
Equally though, the analysis that Ilse Tweer conducted for the Green party found claims by the Belgian authorities that reactor defects were created over 30 years ago, probably at the time of manufacture, not credible because sonic tests had not discovered them at the time.
The attendant risks now were very real, she argued: “In a loss of coolant accident, cold water has to be injected as an emergency safety measure for core cooling. This cold water will induce thermal stresses in the vessel wall because of the extreme contrast in temperature and could trigger an uncontrolled growth of cracks inside the vessel wall.
“That has to be excluded as otherwise you could have a meltdown and there are no systems that could manage that.”