An unprecedented alliance of 30 major cities and districts from three countries has joined forces to try to shut down two ageing Belgian nuclear reactors close to their borders.
Cologne and Dusseldorf in Germany, Luxembourg City and Maastricht in the Netherlands are among the cities co-funding a lawsuit to close one reactor – Tihange 2 – and calling on the European commission to prepare a separate case at the European court of justice.
“More than 30 districts have adopted resolutions to support us, and want to join the lawsuit,” said Helmut Echtenberg, the mayor of Germany’s Greater Aachen region, who is leading the campaign.
Only one plaintiff may appear in court, “but we will ensure that Tihange 2 is no longer connected to the grid in the future,“ Echtenberg said. “This is my honest conviction.”
Around 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from seven reactors in the country’s Tihange and Doel plants. Two of the reactors – Tihange 2 and Doel 3 – reopened in December after a repair process that lasted 21 months. But Doel 3 on the Dutch border had to be shut down again one week later.
The 40-year old reactors have been plagued by a litany of problems such as reactor pressure vessel micro-cracks, fire and one mysterious case of sabotage.
These have sparked what Echtenberg calls “existential fear” in Aachen, which lies 60km upwind of the plant. Anxiety is rife that house prices and business activity could soon suffer.
Anti-nuclear posters festoon the shops in Aachen town centre, stickers adorn car windows and stories about Tihange are regularly splashed across local papers.
Hartmut Falter, the owner of Aachen’s oldest bookstore, Die Mayersche, has put up a 10m x 3m anti-nuclear poster in his storefront. “The risk of a nuclear accident is not very high but if it happened, the damage would be extreme,” he told the Guardian. “Unfortunately, nuclear dangers do not stop at the frontier.”
“So far the situation has not had an economic impact on the region but it definitely could,” he added.
As a groundswell of opposition gathers force, Echtenberg says he will not rule out mass protests at the Belgian border.
“If our lawsuit is rejected, that might happen because then the political will would clearly need to be articulated,” he told the Guardian. “Once [the people of] Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and the NGOs all say this is just not safe, it will of course have an impact on the Belgian state.”
For Germans to be exposed to nuclear risks after shuttering their more modern plants because of the Fukushima disaster was an “absolute irony of history”, he added.
Last week, it was announced that France’s oldest reactor in Fessenheim, on the German border, would close after complaints by Germany and Switzerland.
Lawyers are already working on a second nuclear lawsuit, which may be filed inBelgium by the Dutch city of Maastricht. The regional governments of North Rhine Westphalia and Rhineland Palatinate are taking separate cases against the reactors to the UN and European commission.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, is said to be a supporter of the campaign and may add heft to its call for the release of allegedly missing documents authorising the reopening of the two reactors.
The debate about their safety revolves around the thousands of micro-cracks or hydrogen flakes – measured at up to 18cm long – that were found in reactor pressure vessels at Tihange 2 and Doel 3.
The plant’s operator, Electrabel, blames the damage on the vessels’ original design and the relatively unsophisticated visual testing of that time.
Anne-Sophie Huge, a spokeswoman for Electrabel said: “In the 1980’s the tests were internationally acceptable but the technology has evolved since then. There are no reasons to be afraid. Our power plants are some of the most safe and secure nuclear power plants in Europe.”
Environmentalists and anti-nuclear academics counter that the original tests used ultrasonic technology which would have detected the defects, unless they emerged and grew bigger later.
“It is not comprehensible that a less sensitive ultrasonic technique should not detect large flaws,” wrote Ilse Tweer, a former adviser to the Austrian government. “The reverse observation has to be expected.”
Jean van Vyve, Electrabel’s project director for reactor pressure vessels, said that the original ultrasonic tests were done manually and that, while some flaws may have been seen, they would have fallen within “perfectly acceptable” limits.
“We may regret that there was not a detailed report but at that time, 40 years ago, there was no recording,” he said. “It was purely manually done.”
In the Tihange 4 pub opposite the reactor site, Sebastian De Proot, a 24-year-old barman, was sanguine about any potential risks.
“It is not very dangerous here,” he says. “They stop the plant whenever someone gets even a little injury so I think we are safe. It’s not like Fukushima.”
Industry advocates often point out that nuclear power emits less CO2 than coal – a possible substitute fuel if Tihange 2 is shut. Coal also has damaging cross-border health impacts of its own.
De Proot said he agreed with the anti-nuclear case but: “the plant is the only thing for people here. If it closed there would be a lot of trauma. Unemployment in Belgium is very high.”
Not all local people agree. In the nearby town of Huy, Marie Duschen, a 19-year-old student said: “The plants should be closed down because they are dangerous. I have friends working in Tihange. They are afraid that an accident may happen.”
Such sentiments are music to the ears of German anti-nuclear activists who worry that they could revive ghosts of history if they are perceived to be dictating energy policy to their neighbours.
“I do not have the right to demand that a Belgian produces energy my way but there is a real threat from these two reactors and I do have the right to protect my health,” said Jorg Schellenberg, a key activist in the Aachen coalition for action against nuclear power.
The group is trying to reach out to Belgian activists and the next of a rolling series of regional protests will take place in Liege on 17 April.
But the heartland of the new anti-nuclear movement is clearly in Aachen where the Tihange reactor “is discussed in every family and political group,” according to the town’s local mayor, Marcel Philipp.
“It is a defining issue,” he said.
More than half a million people live in the greater Aachen district and Jorg Schellenberg, a leading anti-nuclear activist, says that Echtenberg’s tough anti-nuclear stance has been a vote winner.
“It is very strange that the Greens are part of the North Rhine Westphalia government but they have done nothing against these reactors while a conservative is leading the fight against them,“ he said. “There will be elections next year and I think the Greens will be punished.”
Echtenberg is an unlikely rebel, a career politician in Angela Merkel’s CDU who has been pushed to the forefront of the new anti-nuclear movement by popular anger.
Merkel’s silence on the issue so far had been “disappointing”, if understandable in light of the refugee crisis, he told the Guardian. “We would have a further refugee problem if there was an accident,” he said. “Then we would all be refugees.”
In a worst case scenario, Germans would only hear of of a nuclear accident in Tihange after a circuitous phone chain. Electrabel would call the Belgian government, who would contact officials in Berlin, who should alert the government in North Rhine Westphalia, which would then call Aachen.
Social media or text messages could speed that process, but some local physicians question what would happen next. Public health plans in Aachen do not go far beyond the distribution of 130mg iodine pills, to protect against thyroid cancer.
“For the time being, there are no concrete plans for evacuation,” Echtenberg said. Advice that citizens should stay indoors and await instructions from the authorities would probably not be followed.
North Rhine Westphalia’s interior ministry is drawing up contingency plans after being pushed by Aachen’s mayors, but these will not happen overnight.
Philipp said that he had a blueprint ready to act on but that the limited options in the case of an emergency still gave him sleepless nights.
“In a situation where everyone is leaving the city and there is a nuclear rain over Aachen, you cannot do anything that would help,” he said. “It is a really big problem.”