Belgium postpones nuclear energy phase-out by 10 years over Ukraine

Belgium has decided to postpone its nuclear phase-out scheduled for 2025 by 10 years, worried about soaring energy prices due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“The federal government has decided to take the necessary measures to extend the life of the two most recent nuclear reactors by 10 years,” Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo said in a statement.

“This extension should make it possible to strengthen the independence of our country regarding fossil fuels in a chaotic geopolitical context”, he commented.

He also announced at the same time “a boost” in renewable energies via “additional investments” in offshore wind power, hydrogen, solar energy and sustainable mobility.

The Belgian government’s strategy, decided on Friday during a marathon ministerial meeting, consists of “extending by 10 years” the life of the nuclear reactors of Doel 4 (near the port of Antwerp) and Tihange 3 (near Liège), which means they will remain operational until 2035.

“For too long, our country has lacked vision,” De Croo told a press conference, judging that “this has caused a lot of uncertainty”.

The government will therefore have to negotiate with the the French group Engie, the operator of its two nuclear power plants which have a total of seven reactors.

Engie responded by expressing strong reservations about the Belgian government’s about-turn.

“The decision to extend the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 power plants raises significant safety, regulation and implementation constraints, especially since this extension would take place even though the dismantling activities on neighbouring units will have started,” the company said in a press release published on Friday evening.

“It therefore presents a risk profile which, by its unpredictability and its scale, exceeds the normal activity of a private operator.”

The promise of a gradual exit from nuclear energy has been enshrined in Belgian law since 2003.

The Greens made phasing out nuclear power in 2025 a condition for joining a politically fragile seven-party coalition, painstakingly put together in 2020, more than a year after inconclusive elections.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, with soaring energy prices, the party has indicated that it would agree to consider an alternative scenario.

Massive protests have taken place against two older reactors — Tihange 2 and Doel 3 — in Germany and other neighbouring countries, since experts discovered thousands of tiny cracks in reactor pressure vessels in 2012.

Europe is struggling to find ways to wean itself off its energy dependence on Russia, which supplies 40% of Europe’s gas needs, mainly to Germany, Italy and to several Central European countries.

European leaders will meet next week to agree further emergency measures to ease the blow for consumers and businesses.