Europe and nuclear : episode 2 – Belgium

 

European Climate-Energy policies and nuclear: a disunited Union

In this 2nd episode of our series on Benelux, we examine a country with hot news in energy, and thus in climate: Belgium.

This great little country shares not only its capital with the European Union, but also the large and small contradictions that agitate the EU. The current debate about the imminent closure of Belgium’s nuclear power plants concentrates all the consequences of inconsistencies between climate objectives – increased in December to a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990  – and energy policies that neglect the criterion of gCO2/kWh: an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, subsidies of fossil-fired power capacity, fossil fuel imports, loss of skills and of low-carbon generating capacity, in the name of the energy transition.

In this newsletter, for once we tried to dig deep into the details of the mechanisms at work, and what to our wondering eyes did appear? That each time the Green parties intervened in energy policy, their main demand was reduction in the share of nuclear power, and not measures to preserve the climate or the environment. That capacity mechanism payments by the Belgian state to private fossil fuel companies cannot be avoided. And that, in the end, little if any case is made, and in Europe certainly not sufficiently broadly or strongly, of the conclusion to which this policy leads: the nuclear phaseout will take Belgium from 23% fossil fuels in its power mix in 2020 to 72% in 2030…

Myrto,
for the Voices

Belgian energy policy: full speed ahead towards… re-carbonization

By MATTHIAS MEERSSCHAERT

Matthias holds a Master in Philosophy, with specialisation in Economics and Communications. After 10 years of working in PR consultancy in various roles in Brussels and London, Matthias joined the Belgian Nuclear Forum in 2011 as Head of Public Relations and Public Affairs.

THE CHOICE OF BELGIUM AND ITS CONSEQUENCES FOR CLIMATE, EMPLOYMENT AND PRICES

 

 
Belgium’s electricity market is characterized by reliable security of supply, stable electricity prices and a carbon footprint that’s better than the European average1. Low carbon energy sources provide roughly two thirds of Belgium’s domestic electricity production. In part because the country is accelerating its efforts to deploy new renewables (mainly offshore & onshore wind, plus photovoltaics) but still slightly under target (13%). But mostly thanks to the 2 nuclear power plants (3 reactors in Tihange; 4 reactors in Doel) which provide half of the country’s domestic electricity. Having access to abundant, reliable electricity at affordable and stable prices is crucial for the country’s economic activities – the Port of Antwerp’s petrochemical industry, to name just one.

All this led to the current situation, where all of the 7 units representing 6 GW will be cut from the grid between 2022 and 2025

All of this might come to an abrupt end in the years to come, as the current government (a broad coalition of liberal, socialist, green and christian-democrat parties, nicknamed Vivaldi coalition, with former liberal party leader Alexander De Croo as Prime Minister) confirmed the phase-out calendar for 2025 for all seven reactors. It’s only the second time in history that the green parties are part of the majority. The first time was between 1999 and 2004, when the phase-out law was installed and voted in Parliament (a conditio sine qua non for the Green parties to enter the government). Meanwhile, the phase-out calendar has been adapted twice (with an LTO of 10 years granted for the country’s 3 eldest reactors Doel 1, Doel 2 and Tihange 1 under previous governments, in order to guarantee the country’s security of supply). All leading to the current situation, where all of the 7 units (6GW) will be cut from the grid between 2022 and 2025.

Doel nuclear power plant – Photo RTL

In order to avoid black-outs in the years to come, Belgium’s grid operator Elia has calculated that an additional 3,9GW capacity will be needed. Either by means of import (Belgium is among the best-connected countries in Europe, but current interconnections will not suffice) or by constructing new capacity. None of the back-up capacity (mainly gas, despite the current Green Minister’s ambitious plans for renewables) has been built, and under the given market circumstances no private investor is willing to build new plants in Belgium without state subsidies. Therefore, a mechanism was put in place in 2019 by the previous government (called CRM, i.e. capacity renumeration mechanism), with support from the Green parties (who were in the opposition at that time, as part of a wisselmeerderheid, or alternative majority). The CRM is currently under review by the EC Directorate-General for Competition to assess whether the mechanism complies with EU state aid laws. Such reviews typically last at least 12 months.

Journalists raised questions about the statement, pointing out that replacing nuclear by gas is rather the opposite of a so-called transition from carbon-intense to low-carbon

Meanwhile, the new federal Minister of Energy, Tinne Van der Straeten (Green party) has commented that the nuclear phase-out is not an objective, but “a means to make the transition from an expensive and carbon-intense electricity source to a cheap and low-carbon power grid”2. Journalists raised questions about the statement, pointing out that replacing nuclear by gas is rather the opposite of a so-called transition from carbon-intense to low-carbon. Confronted with this paradox, the Minister defended her policy by comparing the energy transition (and the expected rise of carbon dioxide emissions in the years to come) with renovating a house: “first you need to encounter the dust, but in the end you’re happy with the result. It gets worse first before it gets better”3.

Federal Minister of Energy, Tinne Van der Straeten – Photo BELGA

Still, this might not be the final curtain call for nuclear. Whereas some praised the decision by the new government, to finally draft a clear perspective after 2 decades of uncertainty with regards to Belgium’s energy policy, the government itself sparked the ongoing uncertainty by leaving the door open for potential long-term operation of 2 nuclear units (Doel 4 and Tihange 3). If, by November 2021, an independent evaluation foresees potential issues in the years to come with regards to Belgium’s security of electricity supply, the government will take adequate measures such as adjusting the legal schedule for a capacity of up to 2 GW. To that, Engie Electrabel, operator of the Belgian reactors, argued that late 2021 will simply be too late to start life extension work on Tihange 3 and Doel 4.

Tihange nuclear power plant

IMPACT OF A NUCLEAR PHASE-OUT

 

Should Belgium decide to fully phase out nuclear by 2025, this will have substantial negative impact on security of supply, carbon dioxide emissions, employment, overall nuclear knowhow, electricity prices, and many other parameters.

With regards to electricity prices, it is estimated that a complete nuclear phase-out in 2025 could double electricity production cost by 2050i, with investments increasing by €36 billion between 2010 and 2030ii. Belgium’s trade deficit could increase to 3,7€/MWh by 2030iii and the cost for import of electricity could rise to €300 millioniv. More recent research concluded that a nuclear phase out could entail an additional cost of 134 million4 to 1 billion euros5 per year. All of these worrisome findings come from independent research by academia, think tanks and research bodies.

Greenhouse gas emissions would be 47% higher in 2030 compared to 2010

When it comes to the climate impact of a Belgian phase-out, different independent studies on the topic have similarly come to worrisome findings. Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production could triple by 2050 after a nuclear phase-outv, with 4 million additional tons of CO2 by 2030vi, and 19 million tons per year as of 2030vii. Greenhouse gas emissions would be 47% higher by 2030 than 2010viii. All of this resulting from the fact that the share of fossil-fueled electricity plants, currently representing 27% of Belgium’s domestic electricity production, would reach a peak share of 72% by 2030ix. With as a result a sharp rise in carbon dioxide emissions, completely opposite to the climate ambitions Belgium committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Nuclear energy is definitely a part of the solution for the climate protection, as a very good complement to renewable energy.

A nuclear phase-out could negatively impact Belgium’s industry in applications other than energy

With regards to employment, a nuclear phase-out in 2025 could potentially result in the loss of 7,000 direct jobs. Not to mention the job loss among subcontractors (not included in the 7,000 direct job loss figure). More generally, a nuclear phase-out would have a negative impact on the longstanding internationally recognized position of Belgium as a nuclear power hub (based on the thorough expertise Belgium has in different domains of nuclear technology, from fundamental & applied scientific research to nuclear medicine, and over the complete life cycle of nuclear facilities, from engineering and construction to dismantling and knowhow about nuclear waste). As such, a nuclear phase-out could negatively impact Belgium’s nuclear industry in applications other than energy, and in the long run create a nuclear brain drain. Workers from the plants in Doel and Tihange have raised the issue recently, claiming the importance of the 7,000 labor force and reminding policy-makers of the Belgian nuclear knowhow, which will be impacted negatively by a nuclear phase-out. Workers in Doel and Tihange feel let down: “whenever 500 jobs or more are at risk of disappearing, media and politicians utter their disapproval. Here, 7,000 jobs will disappear and nobody seems to disapprove”, one worker in Doel said. Trade unions added that “this is a sad first for Belgium: never before in Belgium’s economic history has a government decided to halt operations in an industrial plant – an industrial plant which could guarantee safe and reliable operations for at least 2 more decades”.

 

PUBLIC DEBATE

 

Meanwhile, a recent study conducted by British independent think tank EMBER6 ignited the public debate, and triggered a tsunami of comments by academia, think tanks, industry federations and energy experts, who publicly and repeatedly questioned Belgium’s energy policy. The study concluded that Belgium, now amongst the best-in-class when it comes to decarbonizing its energy and electricity sector, will be among the 7 worst-performing countries by 2030, after the nuclear phase-out and new-gas-era, and 1 of only 2 countries in the EU where the share of fossil fuels for electricity production will be on the rise between now and 2030. The other country is Sweden, where the share of fossil rises from 2.24 to 2.27%. In Belgium, it will rise from 39% to 59%.

‘Classic’ environmentalist movements strongly defend the anti-nuke, pro-gas policy

This obviously increased pressure on the new government and was generally considered as a first real hurdle for the new government, which has now been in place for 8 weeks. Journalists commented that the issue (Belgium’s energy transition and the nuclear-phase out) will continue to dangle above this government like a sword of Damocles. With regard to the public debate that followed, it was all the more ironic that ‘classic’ environmentalist movements, who have a (historical) close connection with the Green parties (many of the former workers in these environmentalist movements have now been appointed by the Green cabinets), strongly defend the anti-nuke, pro-gas policy. Experts with various backgrounds (from new environmentalists, such as the Ecomodernist movement, to independent experts and academic authorities) have openly expressed their disagreement with this environmentally unfriendly shift. Some claim the current government is just bending to the Green party’s dogmatic and anti-nuclear agenda, despite the cost, in order to keep the new coalition together.

51% favors the combination of renewables and nuclear over other alternatives. Belgium’s current gas + renewables scenario is supported only by 22% of those polled

Whatever happens, despite heated debate, the general public has an overall nuanced view on nuclear technology. The latest poll was conducted only weeks ago7, with the current government already in place. A representative sample of 1000 Belgians responded to an online poll, with remarkable results. More Belgians (44% vs 41%) are in favor of LTO of Belgium’s nuclear power plants, most importantly to ensure security of supply (65%). Because a majority (51,3%) fears that the replacement capacity will not be ready in time.

A majority (51%) favors the combination of renewables and nuclear over other alternatives. Belgium’s post-2025 scenario (gas + renewables) is supported by only 22% of those polled (other alternatives get even less support).

 

Evolution of electricity mix (net production in TWh)

Evolution of Belgian power production by source.
Federal Planning Bureau, 2017

 

 

i Federal Planning Bureau, 2030 Climate and Energy Framework for Belgium – Impact assessment of a selection of policy scenarios up to 2050, 2015

ii Federal Planning Bureau, 2030 Climate and Energy Framework for Belgium – Impact assessment of a selection of policy scenarios up to 2050, 2015

iii Energyville, Energy Transition in Belgium: Choices and Costs, 2017

iv Energyville, Energy Transition in Belgium: Choices and Costs, 2017

v PricewaterhouseCoopers, Successes in the Energy Transition, 2016

vi Energyville, Energy Transition in Belgium: Choices and Costs, 2017

vii Energyville, Energy Transition in Belgium: Choices and Costs, 2017

viii FOD Economy & Federal Planning Bureau, Prospective study Emlectricity 2030, 2015

ix Federal Planning Bureau, Toelichting bij sommige uitdagingen voor het Belgische energiebeleid in het kader van klimaatdoelstellingen

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