IEA highlights concerns over Belgian nuclear phase-out

21 April 2022

Belgium's planned phase-out of nuclear energy is likely to lead to greater use of gas-fired generation and increased emissions, according to a new policy review by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

(Image: IEA)

The IEA said that since its last energy policy review in 2016, Belgium has made progress on its energy transition. From 2010 to 2020, the share of renewable energy in Belgium's total final energy consumption increased from 6% to 12%, driven by growth in renewable electricity generation, mainly from wind and solar photovoltaics, and an increased use of bioenergy, mainly for industrial and building heating and for transport. Progress on renewable energy has been especially pronounced for offshore wind, it noted. In 2021, Belgium had the sixth-highest offshore wind capacity in the world and is planning for a major expansion of offshore wind deployment.

However, the country has so far made limited progress on reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, with government estimates suggesting demand may increase through 2030 at least. In 2020, oil accounted for 46% of total energy demand, followed by natural gas (27%), and a small share (3%) from coal.

Due to the high share of fossil fuels in its energy supply, Belgium has seen only limited reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, according to the IEA latest review. From 2011 to 2019, energy-related greenhouse gas emissions fell by just 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to reach 90 Mt CO2.

Though the government's Long-term Strategy for Energy and Climate aims to put Belgium on a path aligned with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and the European Union, it does not include a clear target for national climate neutrality by 2050.

Belgium plans to phase out most nuclear electricity generation - which has historically accounted for about half of the country's electricity production - by 2025, raising concerns over its electricity security and greenhouse gas emissions.

"More aggressive policies are needed to reduce Belgium's fossil fuel dependency and accelerate emissions reductions, especially given that the nuclear phase-out will increase the carbon intensity of electricity generation," the IEA said.

Belgium has seven nuclear reactors located at two nuclear power plants: Doel in Flanders (four reactors) and Tihange in Wallonia (three reactors), with a combined generation capacity of 5.94 GW.

The country's federal law of 31 January 2003 requires the phase-out of all nuclear electricity generation in the country. The law was amended in 2013 and 2015 to provide for the Tihange 1, Doel 1 and 2 reactors to remain operational until 2025. In response to Russia's military action in Ukraine and goals to reduce fossil fuel dependency, the federal government decided in March this year to take the necessary steps to extend 2 GW of nuclear capacity (Tihange 3 and Doel 4) by ten years, including modifying the 2003 law. Under this new arrangement, most of Belgium's nuclear generation capacity will be phased out by 2025.

"Phasing out most nuclear electricity generation will have a large impact on the Belgian electricity system, including higher greenhouse gas emissions and potential challenges to maintaining security of electricity supply," according to the IEA. "Achieving a timely extension of 2 GW of nuclear capacity will be challenging, given the regulatory and technical constraints associated with lifetime extensions of nuclear reactors. The government has indicated that the extension cannot be completed by the winter of 2025, but hopes to have the 2 GW operational in 2026."

The IEA recommends the Belgian government acts promptly to ensure that the extension of 2 GW of nuclear capacity by ten years can be completed in a timely and cost-effective manner. It should also ensure that envisaged reforms of the management and investment policy of the decommissioning and waste management funds do not hamper the timely availability of these funds. The government should finalise the national long-term strategies for high-level waste management.

Next steps include the definition of key milestones and identification of a disposal site, with associated preliminary studies, while ensuring timely involvement of relevant stakeholders and local communities. In addition, it should develop a national nuclear sector plan that provides long-term visibility on remaining nuclear activities and fosters collaboration among national and international organisations in key areas (especially decommissioning and long-term management of high-level radioactive waste) and ensures the continued availability of a skilled workforce.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News