Why Belgium needs its nuclear power plants

1. The debate

The 2003 law provides for the end of electricity production by nuclear power reactors in Belgium. The date set by the government is 2025, provided that, in November 2021, the same government considers that this abandonment is feasible by relying on renewable energies accompanied by gas-fired power stations known as CCGT (combined gas-steam cycle).

However, Belgian nuclear power plants are not at the end of their life. Safety authorities in several countries have approved the lifespan of PWR plants, like the ones we have, up to 60 years and even 80 years

Today, nuclear energy generates more or less 75% of all low carbon electricity produced in Belgium. The remaining 25% of low carbon electricity comes from renewable energies. If we close the nuclear power reactors in 2025, increasing the contribution of renewable energies (EnRI), given the latter’s intermittence and the need to maintain sufficient production, multiple gas power stations will have to be built. Our country's CO2 emissions will then increase considerably.

Average nuclear electricity production in the mix in 2019: 49%

On the one hand, extending the life of our nuclear power reactors is thus feasible and on the other hand, current technological developments allow us to consider the installation of new reactors of different types in the next ten years, offering flexibility and adaptation for different uses: production of electricity, heat, hydrogen, desalinisation, etc.

2. Keeping two reactors in operation : a restrictive option

The option that may be considered by the Belgian government to ensure the security of electricity supply after 2025 is to keep two nuclear reactors in operation (Tihange 3 and Doel 4). These two reactors produce on average nearly 20% of the electrical energy consumed annually in Belgium.

However, it should be understood that the necessary drastic reduction in CO2 emissions for 2050 involves the elimination of fossil fuels currently used for our mobility in general, for maritime transport, for air transport, for metallurgical factories, for cement plants, for the chemical industry,…, the equivalent of more than 450 TWh per year. A large part of this consumed energy will have to be produced in the future by so-called carbon-free techniques that mainly produce electricity. Some of this electricity could produce clean fuels such as green hydrogen. If this electricity is produced by EnRI, it will be at a cost of 4 to 8 times that of producing hydrogen with nuclear energy (using for example the high temperatures generated by small modular reactors - SMR).

The demand for electricity will only increase. If a large part is produced by EnRI, given their intermittence and the limits of electricity storage , it will be necessary to maintain many gas-fired power stations as back-up, unless flexible nuclear power is used instead. The only mix that can meet all the criteria is that of renewable energies and flexible nuclear energy production systems, including several large nuclear reactors of the PWR type of third generation.

Extending the life of two nuclear power plants is probably necessary but can only solve the problem temporarily.

3. What about the CO2 emissions produced by the gas-fired plants

Carbon neutrality is the objective advocated by the IPCC – GIEC for 2050. The European Union aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 55% by 2035.

The use of gas-fired power stations is contrary to this objective. They will produce CO2 at the rate of 490 g per kWh. But these plants will be essential, given the phasing out of nuclear power and the intermittence of EnRI.

A credible scenario between 2025 and 2030, for a production of 100 TWh/year, could therefore be proposed by the Minister of Energy as follows :

Production system % of annual production ktons of CO2 per year
Nuclear power plants 0 0
Gas power stations (TGV) 40 % (40 TWh) 19.600
Renewable (EnRI) 40 % (40 TWh) 1160
Importations (DE, FR, …) 20 % (20 TWh) 240 à 20.000*
Total 100 % (100TWh) 21.000 à 40.760

For 2019 we were at around 15,500 ktons of CO2 per year, considering the 50% of nuclear. For the realistic scenario of the table here above, the increase in CO2 production would be from a minimum of 35% to perhaps more than 150%.

The Minister of Energy considers that the ETS system will neutralize this increased emission because new CO2 emitting systems appearing in the EU will force older and less clean systems to shut down elsewhere in the Union. The cost of CO2 emission allowances will increase and the overall cap on accepted emissions will gradually decrease. Will this be bearable by some countries depending on coal?

As stated by our political leaders, within 10 to 15 years, gas-fired power stations could run on green hydrogen! But where will this green hydrogen come from? The surplus of EnRI is only of the order of a few % per year. With what electricity will it be produced ? Will it be imported ?

4. Complementarity of EnRI and gas

Gas-fired power stations (CCGT) have the advantage of being flexible in terms of electricity production. They can, in principle, follow the production variability of wind turbines.

This variability is however very marked as shown in the example; gas-fired power stations will be subject to severe stress and will have limited but numerous production periods (compensated by state aid - CRM see 6. below)

The current Belgian nuclear power plants are not designed to compensate for this variability in real time, but certain nuclear systems of the future are designed with this capability in mind. They could prove to be much more advantageous than gas-fired power plants and be independent of the price of natural gas.

5. How not to depend on other countries

Dependence on Russia (and USA and Qatar)

Another element to be taken into account is the energy independence that nuclear provides compared to gas, which makes us more exposed to geopolitical factors. Uranium is also imported, but the quantities required are very small and easily stored.

Dependence on neighbouring countries

Currently, when Belgium has a low electricity deficit, imports are limited, except in 2018 during the prolonged shutdowns of several nuclear reactors to bring safety bunkers into compliance following injunctions from the safety authority (AFCN).

In general, the load factor for the different Belgian systems can be illustrated as follows:

Production system Load factor : from – to ( %)
Onshore wind turbines 20 30
Offshore wind turbines 30 40
Photovoltaic panels 10 20
Nuclear reactors 70 90
Gas stations (TGV) 80 90

It is therefore logical that certain periods are deficient in electricity. However, if the share of EnRI increases and becomes the majority, it is obvious that the need to call on neighbouring countries also increases, especially if the installed capacity is voluntarily limited to the minimum necessary, as will be the case after the shutdown of nuclear reactors: the Minister of Energy will not decide on the construction of more gas-fired power stations than is strictly necessary.

This import is subject to the goodwill of our neighbours, as long as a European distribution policy is not effective. It can lead to power cuts when our neighbours need energy, like ourselves, for example in very cold weather.

6. What about the electricity bill?

The cost of nuclear electricity depends very little on the price of uranium (+/- 5%) on the other hand the cost of electricity produced by gas power plants depends very much on the price of gas (60% or more). With the current high gas prices, the price of electricity in Belgium can therefore only increase with the shutdown of nuclear power plants.

The price of gas worries us when we think of the scenarios planned for after 2025. Even if the EnRIs produce electricity at increasingly competitive cost, we should add the cost of electricity produced by gas-fired power plants. If the wind turbines have an average load factor of 30%, 70% of the electricity will be produced by gas. The cost of electricity production will therefore not be the cost of the EnRI electricity but rather the addition of 1/3 EnRI + 2/3 gas. What will the kWh (EnRI + GAS) of 2030 cost compared to that which would be supplied by nuclear power? It is not possible to know at this time, because of the evolution of the price of gas.

In addition, knowing that, when the EnRIs provide energy, several gas-fired power stations are shut down, the operators of these power stations will receive a compensation for these periods of non-production by the CRM mechanism : the State will pay the loss of earnings for CCGT power plant operators.

7. The cost of gas increases. What happens to the cost of kWh?

Current and future increases can be significant, even unbearable. According to the energy regulator (CREG), a household will spend around 1,000 euros per year for its electricity. The increase could be exorbitant, estimates economist Bruno Colmant, "the bill per household could increase by 100 euros per month".

The Minister of Energy pleads for the renewal of the "social tariff" for the lowest incomes. But, what will happen to the prices of industrial products and services that consume a lot of electricity?

But is it reasonable to add more burdens to a state that already spends 57% of GDP, when staying in nuclear guarantees the lowest cost of electricity (see below).

The intermittence of EnRIs and therefore their combination with gas-fired power plants means that the cost of electricity production will increase dramatically.

If in the relatively distant future the intermittence of EnRIs was offset by the production of hydrogen (at low efficiency), or by large storage (to be built) , an increase in the cost of electricity production would also be induced.

It should be noted that the 20-year life extension of the two reactors Doel 4 and Tihange 3, which some estimates cost € 1.6 billion, would only add less than € 0.005 to the cost of the kWh produced during these 20 years.

It should also be remembered that maintaining nuclear power would ensure a rent of 3.5 billion € / year for the State and that the costs of dismantling the shutdown plants and the management of spent fuel are already largely included in the cost of nuclear electricity.

The OECD and IAEA have evaluated the costs of electricity production (cost known as LCOE - 2020):

  • Current nuclear power is "cheap" because the investments are completely amortized, and the cost (LCOE) estimate is € 33 per MWh.
  • The price of electricity generated by new nuclear power (EPR plants) is put at € 100 +/- 20 per MWh with reference to certain contracts (these plants still need to operate in Europe to correctly assess the price per MWh). The OECD, however, speaks of costs (LCOE) around € 75.
  • There is no valid estimate for nuclear reactors of the fourth generation, but the cost per MWh generated by an SMR for a series of more than 70 units could be in the order of € 90.
  • The cost of onshore wind power is around € 50 per MWh. (But no or little electricity produced if not enough wind speed)
  • The cost of offshore wind is around € 90 per MWh. (But no or little electricity produced if not enough wind speed)
  • The cost of residential solar energy is estimated at € 130 per MWh.

However, it should be remembered that wind power, in particular, must be accompanied, in order to produce according to its nominal power, by gas-fired power stations, given its intermittence (load factor of 20 to 40%). The cost of a MWh produced by gas was estimated at € 80 before the price increase. One MWh produced by the annual combination of onshore wind and gas (CCGT) would cost at least +/- 70 € and for marine wind turbines we arrive at +/- 60 € (before the crisis!)

Recall that the cost of nuclear electricity produced by existing reactors whose life could be extended up to 60 (or even 80 years) is € 33 per MWh.

8. Electricity needs if transport, home heating, industry, etc Abandon fossil fuels for green hydrogen or other green fuel

It is hoped that the necessary amount of energy will be available when the consumption peak occurs after 2025: recharging of electric cars, electric heating, domestic uses (not counting industrial needs).

If the production is not sufficient, we will have to change our habits in Belgium :

Currently, production adapts to demand. After 2025, demand will have to adapt to production!

Demand programming is likely to be necessary given production limitations after nuclear reactors shut down. For many consumers this will be seen as a restriction on freedoms. It is clear that despite the improvement in efficiency sought by all, it will not be possible to develop EnRI to the point of completely replacing nuclear power and reaching the production levels of 100 TWh/year anticipated by experts.

Belgium does not provide the necessary space for 100% renewable energy with, in addition, the measures necessary to take account of intermittency (e.g. energy storage). We will have to rely on the neighbours and accept a power cut plan for the most difficult periods, hoping not to experience any blackout given that our neighbours could have the same problems as us !

The flexibility that will be necessary in terms of consumption, the “smart charging” of vehicles, the “smart grid” using artificial intelligence to maintain the balance of the network, will not necessarily be seen as logical adaptations but rather as constraints.

9. Expertise, jobs and the production system

The abandonment of nuclear power is also an abandonment of the competence of a population of experts, of qualified technicians and of a specific workforce. According to a Deloitte study conducted for the Belgian Nuclear Forum, nuclear power provided 1,129,900 jobs in the EU in 2019, half of which represented experts and specialist workers. This represents 1/3 direct jobs (reactors - fuel fabrication - spent fuel management) and 2/3 indirect jobs. About 20,000 of these jobs are in Belgium, of which 7,000 direct jobs.

The construction of gas-fired power stations will generate jobs (forecast: 1,900) but only until 2025.

There will be the operation of gas-fired power stations, the dismantling of nuclear reactors, research in the nuclear field, the assembly of wind turbines and their maintenance, the installation of solar panels, ... the modification and management of distribution networks. Part of the 20,000 jobs will be used.

EnRIs require a lot of jobs: the Belgian “Bureau du Plan” considers that to produce 1 GWh of electricity, nuclear power needs 0.14 jobs; wind 0.17 and solar 0.87.

Unfortunately, for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, jobs are more often abroad than in Belgium. The same is true for several aspects of maintenance. Whereas for nuclear power, apart from uranium mining, the resources and jobs are mainly available in Belgium.

10. Is the transition viable as it is proposed?

"No, the light is not going to go out in 2025," said Elia CEO Chris Peeters. Hopefully!

For many of us, the increasing reliance on mainly intermittent renewables is worrying. On the one hand, practically, for 1 MW of EnRI installed, 1 MW of gas-fired power station is needed. On the other hand, to compensate for the lack of installed capacity when nuclear power is shut down, in addition to the development of renewable energy sources, more gas-fired power stations and direct imports will be needed (as long as our neighbours do not suffer the same shortcomings!). Even if the increase in the efficiency of the systems can reduce the demand, this demand will increase knowing that to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, more electricity will be required (mobility, heating, industry ...).

The development of EnRI to reach more than 40% of our consumption will take time.

The promise to achieve 100% renewable energy in 2050 is unrealistic for many engineers : how to overcome so much intermittence? How to stabilize the distribution networks? How much will it cost to transform the networks to collect this energy dispersed over the territory. How to limit or schedule the demand without creating consumer revolt ?

How to store electricity, when there is enough production, to cover periods without wind? Country-wide battery storage is technically unrealistic. Our geography does not allow us to build several other storage units like the Coo pumped storage plant. Using 3 to 4 kWh of electricity produced by the EnRIs to produce a quantity of green hydrogen that will produce 1 kWh of electricity is economic nonsense.

In fact, there probably won't be too much electricity to store when the nuclear reactors will be shut down. There will only be a few % surplus EnRI electricity. We will have to rely on importation and if we import electricity before 2035, it will be from German coal or French nuclear ... if these neighbours will have enough energy to supply us. In addition, there is little wind speed variability between neighbouring countries in Europe: in fact there is often concomitance of poor wind all over Europe

In Germany, the huge push to abandon nuclear power has led to significant consumption of coal, lignite and gas. The development of renewable energies, which reached 45%, is no longer supported by the population as it once was: too many wind turbines, opposition to north-south transmission of electricity.

In the European Union, € 1.1 trillion has been spent on subsidies for ENRIs . The price of electricity in Denmark is the highest in Europe. In Belgium, while we have not yet left nuclear power, thanks to the support taxes for EnRI, we are already third in the class. Sad podium!

The feeling of those who understand the technical aspects of electricity production is that we will not achieve the ‘climate goals’ without nuclear power or without a significant importation, even by accepting power cuts and the diktat of programmed consumption (deprivation!);

To meet the needs of households, industry and transport, we should opt for a balanced mix of renewables and nuclear power. Nuclear power is evolving , it will make a comeback in Belgium as it is shaping up in other countries, it will adapt to intermittence, to the production of heat and of hydrogen, to maritime transport, to spent fuel recycling which constitutes an enormous reserve of new fuel, a true circular economy. Reprocessing of the current stored spent fuel could guarantee 1000 years or more of electricity production.

11. In conclusion

In conclusion, getting out of nuclear power in Belgium ...

  • Does not reduce the risks and fear considered by some of our fellow citizens, in fact, there are 13 reactors at our borders, including 2,900 MW at Chooz (Givet), 5,200 MW at Cattenom (Thionville), 5,400 MW in Dunkerque and others under construction. The Borssele plant in the Netherlands is extended to 60 years and 10 new plants are planned in the Netherlands.
  • Does not resolve the issue of CO2 related to electricity production.
  • Does not solve the waste issue. On the contrary, the extension would produce very little more waste and contribute to the financing; everything will have to be treated anyway.
  • Increases our dependence on China and Germany for PV and wind turbines and on Russia, USA and Qatar for gas.
  • Increases the electricity bill of households and industry.
  • Deprives us of an efficient and economical resource to produce hydrogen which will be essential to reduce CO2 emissions generated by industry and "heavy" transport.
  • Throws away a large part of the 20,000 direct and indirect jobs as well as our internationally recognized expertise.
  • Expensive energy will drive millions of Europeans into an untenable situation, whether they are individuals or businesses. The energy crisis will very quickly turn into an economic, financial and social crisis.