Most of the nuclear reactors currently operational in Western Europe are old. No new plants have been constructed since the 1980’s, and countries such as Belgium, France and Germany have been running the same reactors since the 1960’s. Now the debate has centered on decommissioning.
What is the lifetime of a nuclear reactor? Is anyone competent enough to decide? Scientists seem to think that a reactor can run for a very long time, up to 80 years, as long as it is properly maintained. Politicians, on the other hand, seem to prefer that reactors are shut down earlier – about 40 years after they come into operation.
Yet, in recent years, the governments of Western Europe have run into a brick wall of problems. In 2003, Belgium accepted a law to begin shutting down some of its nuclear reactors by setting their life-time at 40 years. The 7 reactors in the country became operational between 1975 and 1985 and there are no new reactors planned. Nevertheless, there is an exception included in the law, which states that it can be disregarded to guarantee the supply of electricity for a limited amount of time. The main political concerns were that a decommissioning of the NPPs as scheduled would increase electricity prices, would lead Belgium to become indebted through obligation to purchase ‘carbon credits’, and would increase the import dependency of the country. These issues were the result of a report published by Belgium’s ‘Commission Energy 2030’ in 2007 and presented to the Parliament in July 2008, which outlined the economic threats posed by the proposed deactivation.
Belgium already imports 97.4% of its oil and 99.8% of its natural gas. The country is also one of the most indebted ones in the EU. This means that a decommissioning of nuclear power plants would aggravate the situation, which is already very unsustainable. As a result of this, an amendment of the decommissioning law was accepted by the government in 2009. The life-time of the NPPs is no-longer 40 years, but has been increased to 50 years. This takes into account that Belgium runs some of the safest and most modern nuclear reactors in the EU. In addition to this, the country has the experience, financing and facilities for the storage of nuclear waste. Belgium would therefore continue operating its current nuclear capacity, which contributes 65% of electricity generation, until 2025 at least.
A similar situation occurred recently in Germany. The planned decommissioning of nuclear reactors was to occur around 2021. Yet, Angela Merkel’s government decided that it can safely extend the life-time of the reactors between 8 and 14 years, depending on how modern they are. The 12-hour-long negotiations for the decision highlighted similar concerns to those in Belgium – if nuclear power is turned off without a ‘green’ alternative, the country would have to go back to fossil-fuels for its electricity generation. The extension would allow Germany to operate its nuclear power plants well into the 2030’s and would give them time to develop renewable sources of energy.
It seems that politicians are waking up to the contribution which nuclear power has to their economies and energy industries. Neither Belgium, nor Germany, or any of the other Western European countries is willing to decommission their existing nuclear reactors in the near future. The cause – the lack of a ready alternative.
In the end, I would like to make a note from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In his ‘Foundation’ series, he points to the fact that the decommissioning of nuclear power leads to a return to fossil fuels and is a sign for the degradation of a state. It seems to me that politicians should take into consideration similar philosophical concerns when deciding on how long nuclear reactors should operate.