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Belgian breakdown reactor: Doel 3 is shut down

Status: 09/23/2022 12:18 p.m

The Doel 3 reactor goes offline – as the first reactor in Belgium to be shut down as part of the nuclear phase-out. It went into operation for the first time 40 years ago, but was switched off again and again due to numerous malfunctions.

By Jakob Mayr, ARD Studio Brussels

During the course of the evening, the technicians in the control center of the Doel nuclear plant in the port of Antwerp press the buttons, control rods slowly move into the fuel elements of reactor block 3, the chain reaction stops, the reactor goes offline – the first in Belgium to be shut down as part of the nuclear phase-out .

Greenpeace’s Jan Vande Putte thinks it’s a long overdue step: “A historic moment, but that’s the inevitable course of history. Nuclear energy is finished, these old reactors are finished, they have become very unreliable and are becoming more and more dangerous, and therefore their shutdown is only the logical consequence.”

Decades of failures

Doel 3 was first switched on forty years ago. The operator Engie Electrabel assures on its website that the reactorType among the safest in the world. But this special reactor repeatedly made headlines as a breakdown reactor: ten years ago, experts found thousands of fine cracks in the reactor pressure vessel, leaks in the cooling system, broken switches – all in all, Doel 3 was shut down for around three years.

There were also massive problems in the Tihange 2 kiln near Liège. It should go offline at the beginning of February at the latest. “Shutting down these two reactors, Tihange 2 and Doel 3, which are very close to North Rhine-Westphalia, is extremely important from a safety point of view,” says Vande Putte. “They shouldn’t even be in operation anymore and the fact that they are is absolutely irresponsible”

Belgium is also discussing the postponement of the nuclear phase-out

Environmental activists on both sides of the border have been protesting for years. But Belgium’s government has kept both reactors running despite major concerns in neighboring countries – until now. And until the very end, the Belgian coalition fought over the end of Doel 3. Because electricity is also extremely expensive in Belgium. A few days ago, the Christian Democratic Minister of the Interior, Annelies Verlinden, said that she wanted to have a postponement of the shutdown examined.

The Greens – also in the government – protested, and Prime Minister Alexander de Croo was not enthusiastic either: “These are discussions that shouldn’t be held in the press. I also said that clearly internally. But I would say that we all share the same concern not to take any risk in terms of security of supply. At the moment I don’t think there is any uncertainty.”

decommissioning difficult to postpone

It is neither wise nor advisable to postpone the decommissioning of Doel 3, says the plant’s director, Peter Moens. Just ordering new fuel would take years. There are also unresolved security issues.

On this point, the nuclear power plant director and Greenpeace expert Vande Putte even agree: “It’s not like a biscuit factory that you can just keep running. You would have to shut down first, then invest a lot in these old reactors, and the whole process, including of the legal process, takes about five years. So this is absolutely not a solution to the current energy crisis.”

Dismantling costs one billion euros

After Doel 3 has been shut down, the fuel elements have to cool down before they go into the spent fuel pool. Later, the experts flush the primary circuit with a chemical solution to remove as much radioactivity as possible. Starting next spring, the cooled fuel will be reloaded into special storage and transport containers.

The dismantling will cost around one billion euros and is scheduled to begin in 2026. According to the original schedule, the remaining five Belgian reactors should then also be off the grid. But the government in Brussels is keeping a back door open in the face of the energy crisis: In the event of supply problems, the two youngest reactors can run ten years longer.

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