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Looking towards Belgium’s nuclear-free future

06 Feb 2019 (Last Updated February 6th, 2019 12:10)

The recent closure of six out of seven nuclear reactors raised concerns over the ability of Belgium to cope without its nuclear power in the coming months. How will the country react and what lessons can the power industry learn when looking forward to the 2025 nuclear phase-out plan?

Looking towards Belgium’s nuclear-free future
The country’s nuclear power reactors provide 40% of national electricity demand, but six of seven units were forced to shutdwon in the past few months for repairs and inspections. Credit: Courtesy of Michielverbeek

Belgium’s energy industry could be facing a particularly dark winter. Engie Electrabel, the owner of the country’s nuclear power reactors, which provide 40% of national electricity demand, was forced to close down six of seven units in the past few months for repairs and inspections, leaving all but one reactor out of action as of 1 September 2018.

In response, the government warned of potential rolling blackouts due to the energy shortfall, and Belgian grid operator Elia released an emergency ‘load shedding’ plan in which it would reduce electricity consumption by turning off motorway lights and suspending industrial production temporarily. It also told citizens to prepare for reducing their personal consumption and warned of higher energy bills during the colder period.

Since the warning, two reactors have been placed back online, namely Thiange 1 and Doel 4, joining the grid on 12 November and 15 December, respectively, along with the Doel 3 unit that has remained functional since returning online in July 2018, following concrete degradation repairs.

However, with four of the seven reactors still out of action, Elia will have to mitigate energy shortfalls and manage the electricity balance if it is going to avoid major power issues.

Reasons for the closures

The closure of six of the nuclear reactors was for various unplanned reasons, but linked to nuclear safety, according to Engie Electrabel.

Engie Electrabel spokesperson Hellen Smeets says: “Some of our reactors [Doel 3 and 4, Tihange 1 and 2] have been under inspection programmes regarding the concrete on the ceilings of the bunkers. Those bunkers are right next to the reactor and we have noticed a bit of deterioration of the concrete because in those specific bunkers there were pipes where there was a lot of steam.”

The high levels of steam made the bunkers very hot and moist, and so a small amount of degradation occurred to the concrete ceiling.

Meanwhile, other reactors were in the stages of planned overhaul, in order to extend their life by ten years.

“Doel 1 and 2 are currently in a planned overhaul,” says Smeets. “This long overhaul was planned in order to extend the exploitation of the units for ten more years. As a result of an inspection programme on a spare pipe of the back-up cooling water system of Doel 1, the necessary measures have been taken and have been extended preventively to Doel 2.”

Under the most recent plans, Doel 2 was expected to resume operations by 31 December at the earliest, while Doel 1 will be out of action until 31 January 2019. Engie Electrabel plans to have Thiange 3 up and running by 2 March, with a projected return date for Thiange 2 estimated to be 1 June.

The closures have resulted in a potential 2,000MW energy supply gap this winter, as reported by Bloomberg.

Mitigating a potential winter crisis

Despite Engie Electrabel’s plan to resume operations quickly and safely, the loss of reactors across the colder period could lead to energy shortfalls and it is up to the whole country to mitigate this.

In a developed country such as Belgium, nationwide power outages should not really be happening. The World Bank places Belgium as the 12th best nation for quality of electricity supply in terms of lack of interruptions, with an indicator score of 6.6 out of 7. Nor does Belgium appear in the top 100 list of countries with the most monthly power outages for 2017-2018, as provided by Index Mundi.

So, what plans have been put forward to keep the lights on in the country this winter?

Elia has announced a few potential measures to mitigate a power shortage, such as sending requests for additional control volumes for access responsible parties in an attempt to incorporate any spare capacity at existing power facilities. It will, if necessary, call on contracted reserves including activating quick-starting gas turbines, reducing power consumption from industry and seeking assistance from neighbouring countries’ power grids.

The load shedding plan is a measure of last resort, with potential electricity bans to ensure that the grid remains balanced during traditionally high consumption periods.

Meanwhile, Engie Electrabel has planned its own measures to keep the grid balanced.

“We always communicate very transparently and directly to Elia, which is in charge of the grid, so it is up to them to see if there is a balance, or a need for more production,” says Smeets.

“What we do is we try to produce as much electricity as possible and we also mobilise a lot of additional capacity so that we bid to contribute to the provision. We restarted some gas turbines so that they could produce electricity as well.”

The company says they have implemented measures since September, which have already added an extra 1,200MW of local capacity to the grid.

These procedures including restarting the 255MW Vilvoorde gas power station owned by Bulgarian company Energy Market, and installing 400MW of additional mobile units at Engie Electrabel’s production facilities. It has also activated Engie’s thermal and hydraulic power stations in neighbouring countries – France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Other tactics, such as managing demand from industrial customers, should add another 500MW of capacity to the grid.

Nuclear phase-out: the road to 2025

The approach taken by the Belgium power industry to handle any potential power shortages this winter could pose some interesting challenges and solutions when looking forward to the country’s nuclear phase-out plan.

The draft bill for Belgium to become a nuclear-free country, known as the Energy Pact, was announced in December 2017. In October 2018, the government confirmed its commitment to the pledge as long as alternative sources are found to meet demand in the next seven or so years. It’s no small feat, as the seven nuclear reactors contribute around 6GW of energy capacity, which would need to be replaced.

The solution could be simpler than replacing the huge amount of capacity supplied by the nuclear plants. If the whole population, both businesses and residents, can reduce its energy consumption, then there will be less of a strain on energy companies to meet demand.

Smeets says: “The big question is how will Belgium cope if that [2025] decision stands? I think we should really think about how to be as efficient as possible. Energy efficiency is really important.

“If we all consume less electricity there wouldn’t be the need to produce more and more. There wouldn’t be the need to replace all capacities, so I think we should really look into that and try to work on that because there is a lot of opportunity for everyone.”

Interestingly, large swathes of power consumption in Belgium are used for powering its old, energy inefficient buildings, according to Engie Electrabel.

“We can help people, firms, and authorities to help make their buildings more energy efficient and consume less energy. I think there is a lot of opportunity there,” says Smeets.

“There are a lot of old buildings in Belgium and I think around 40% of energy consumption in Belgium goes into powering buildings – not industry, but buildings. If we could reduce the electricity consumption in buildings that would get us somewhere.”

Looking forward, Engie also plans to invest more in its renewables business, such as wind power.

“We have a lot of wind turbines and we are definitely looking further into expanding that and biogas, hydraulic power stations, etc. We think that is the future. So we are really trying to work on and expand that side of our services,” adds Smeets.

Whether it be through installing additional renewables capacity, encouraging citizens to reduce their electricity consumption, updating buildings to become more energy efficient, or a combination of all these strategies, it will nonetheless be a tough test for Belgium to reach its goal of a nuclear phase-out.

For the next few months, at least, the country may well have to rely on the infrastructure of its neighbours to add that extra power capacity in times of high electricity demand.