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Belgium's neighbours fret over reboot of ageing nuclear reactors

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP | Dutch Environment Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen leaves Doel nuclear plant on January 20, 2016

Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have raised concerns over two ageing Belgian nuclear reactors recently brought back to life after being shut down for more than two years over safety concerns.


German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks this week demanded a meeting with Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon to express the concerns of German citizens who live in close proximity to the problem-riddled nuclear reactors.

The meeting, which will take place in Brussels on Monday, comes after similar requests from Dutch and Luxembourgish officials worried about the safety of people who live near Belgium’s Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors.

In summer 2012, Belgian authorities found small cracks in the pressure vessel of Doel 3 during a scheduled outage and safety check, opting to keep it offline until more tests were conducted. In September of the same year, the same flaws were discovered in the Tihange 3 reactor.

The Doel nuclear power station – which counts four reactors in all, including the country’s oldest one – straddles the border between Belgium and the Netherlands' western Zeeland province. The three reactors that comprise the Tihange nuclear power station are located around an hour’s drive from the borders of Germany and Luxembourg.

Belgium’s nuclear watchdog in December gave the green light to restart the reactors. But fears have also emerged since Belgium decided to extend the lives of 40-year-old reactors Doel 1 and Doel 2 until 2025.

Struggles to restart

Last week an adviser to Luxembourg’s environment ministry told reporters that Belgium failed to ease his government’s concerns over the Tihange reactor. “We did not get answers to all of our questions,” Olaf Munichsdorfer was quoted as saying by AFP after a meeting with Jambon.

Dutch officials appeared slightly more optimistic after visiting the Doel nuclear power station. “There are concerns because of the age of the nuclear plant and the incidents that have been occurring,” Dutch environment minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen told a press conference on January 20.

She nevertheless added: “What the experts are telling me gives me the certainty at the moment that the Doel plant is safe.”

Van Haegen was referring to a series of problems at Belgium’s civil nuclear facilities over the past 18 months. In August 2014 the Doel 4 reactor was urgently shut down after an oil leak in the turbine hall, caused by "tampering".

 Only one week after it was restarted in December 2015, the Doel 3 reactor was shut down in order to fix a water leak on a generator outside its nuclear area. The same month the Doel 1 was closed only three days after it having been restarted because of a generator problem. Both have been restarted again.

Petition launched

Meanwhile, a petition on the activism website urged European citizens to “avoid the next Chernobyl” by calling for an independent safety evaluation of the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors. More than 192,000 people had signed the petition by 3pm on Thursday.

The authors of the petition claimed that one of the reactors had been “damaged” by an explosion at the end of 2015, and the other one had started leaking a “suspicious” white gas two weeks ago.

That information appeared to contradict the latest information about the safety of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 on the website of Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC). Phone calls and emails to FANC press officers for this article went unanswered.

In a press release dated January 12, FANC said that after a battery of tests over the past two years it had concluded that the Belgium-based energy company that operates the Doel and Tihane nuclear sites demonstrated that the cracks in the walls of the reactors in question “do not pose an unacceptable safety risk”.

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