Ailing belgian nuclear power plants: despite cracks, they may continue to radiate

The German Reactor Safety Commission has no objections to the continued operation of Tihange 2 and Doel 3. A broad alliance sees it differently.

According to the commission, the cracks are not increasing significantly, even in the event of accidents, they are not an extra risk Photo: dpa

The Belgian nuclear power plants Tihange 2 and Doel 3, which are highly controversial after numerous incidents, but mainly because of thousands of cracks on the reactor pressure vessels, can continue to be operated safely in the future, according to the German Reactor Safety Commission (RSK).

It has been sufficiently proven that the cracks in the forging rings of the pressure vessels had already developed during manufacture, according to an expert opinion of the RSK. The number and size of the cracks did not increase significantly and did not pose any additional risk in the event of an accident. Why components with so many cracks were installed in the first place remains unclear in the statement. The RSK advises the German Federal Ministry for the Environment on issues of nuclear power plant safety and nuclear waste disposal.

The cracks of up to 17 centimeters at the Tihange 2 and Doel 3 units were discovered during ultrasound examinations. As a result of fires and failures of cooling water pumps, the reactors have had to be emergency shut down several times in the past. In addition, the storage capacity for radioactive waste at both power plants is virtually exhausted.

On the German side, a broad alliance of citizens’ initiatives, local authorities and politicians is campaigning for the immediate shutdown of the two nuclear power plants. North Rhine-Westphalia’s Minister President Armin Laschet (CDU) is among the supporters. Former German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) had also called for Tihange 2 and Doel 3 to be shut down. However, Belgium only agreed to an exchange of German and local experts. The result of this is the RSK statement.

"No reason to sound the all-clear on close reading".

Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) now considers the open safety questions to be "largely clarified." She nevertheless "does not want to let up on promoting the nuclear phase-out in our neighboring countries." NRW Economics Minister Andreas Pinkwart (FDP) calls the RSK report "reassuring news for the time being." Nevertheless, the state maintains that the two reactors should be shut down "as soon as possible."

Oliver Krischer, a member of the Green Party in the Bundestag, criticizes with regard to the cracks that the RSK has so far not provided any answers to questions about the measurement methods. The statement gives "on close reading no reason to sound the all-clear". From the point of view of the regional anti-nuclear initiatives, a pressure vessel with cracks cannot show the same resistance as an intact one. In extreme situations, this means the "difference between containment and bursting".

Belgium wants to phase out nuclear energy by 2025. Accordingly, Tihange 2 will be shut down in 2023, Doel 3 in 2022. Until then, the two nuclear power plant units will continue to operate – thanks in part to German assistance: they will be supplied by the uranium enrichment plant in Gronau and the fuel element forge in Lingen.

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