Belgium - Plutonium Investigation n°9

Belgium: Decisive Parliamentary Debate Upcoming

Belgium is one of the few non-nuclear weapon states to have developed reprocessing and a full-scale plutonium industry. Indeed this small nation has hosted a reprocessing plant and an experimental plutonium fuel fabrication plant since the mid-1960s. A prototype 11 MWe pressurised water reactor in Belgium was the first reactor in Europe to be loaded with MOX (uranium/plutonium) fuel. The MOX fabrication plant P0 at Dessel/Mol, which has been operated by Belgonucléaire since 1973, has provided a significant portion of the MOX fuel which has been used in Europe until the mid-1990s. Most of the MOX is produced for foreign clients. Currently, while the MOX fabrication plant is still operating, there are no further plans to develop the plutonium industry in Belgium. After a parliamentary debate in 1993, the House of Representatives requested in a resolution that the Government implement a moratorium on future reprocessing contracts, while at the same time agreeing to MOX use in Belgian pressurised water reactors (PWRs). Another parliamentary debate is scheduled for the end of 1998, to discuss some of the same topics as in 1993 and make a final decision concerning future spent fuel management in the country. However, knowledgeable sources in Belgium suggest that the debate could be delayed, which, of course, would delay any subsequent decision. There are seven pressurised water reactors operating in Belgium. Three are located at Tihange on the River Meuse and four at Doel on the River Schelde. Belgium is a very densely populated country and the plants have been built very close to cities. The Doel plant is only at 12 km from the second largest city Antwerp (population about 650,000), while the Tihange plant is only 5 km from the smaller city of Huy. In the event of a nuclear accident involving a core meltdown and dispersal of part of the radioactive inventory, these nearby cities would be severely contaminated and the health effects to their population very significant. The use of MOX fuel further increases the potential risks. More than half of the electricity generated in Belgium stems from nuclear power. During 1997, the seven pressurised water reactors (PWRs) generated 45 TWh, which corresponds to 60% of the total 75 TWh produced in the country. Also, Belgium imports electricity from the French State utility EDF. Belgium is legally entitled to some regular inputs since it has a share in the two 1,450 MWe PWRs at Chooz (the Belgian national utility Electrabel owns 25% of the two reactors); the Chooz plant is located on the River Meuse close to the Belgian border, in a peninsula-like part of France which reaches into the neighbouring country. Belgium had formally participated in the French licensing process, since most of the territory inside a 5-km circle around the plant is Belgian, and since the River Meuse carries the liquid radioactive discharges directly into the country. According to the Belgian government, "there is no intention to construct a new nuclear power plant in Belgium in the short term". Synatom, the Belgian company responsible for nuclear fuel management (most of the fuel operations except fuel fabrication) signed reprocessing contracts with France's COGEMA state nuclear fuel company in the early 1970s. These first contracts correspond to 139 MT of spent fuel from the Tihange and Doel plants, to be reprocessed at the UP2 plant at La Hague. This spent fuel was reprocessed before the beginning of the 1990s, when the new plants at La Hague started active operations. Synatom took a 6.6% share of the UP3 plant's production capacity during its first ten years of operation (7,000 MT), which corresponds to 464 MT. The rest of the decennial capacity was shared between other non French customers of COGEMA of which German and Japanese customers hold about 80%. Synatom later contracted a further 66 MT to be reprocessed at La Hague and in 1990 agreed to some "Post-2000" reprocessing contracts, which were to be confirmed by year 1995. These Post-2000 contracts were not confirmed, following the 1993 resolution by the Belgian House of Representatives (Cf. article on page 4). According to this resolution the plutonium separated at the La Hague plants from Belgian spent fuel should be used to produce MOX fuel for unit 2 of the Tihange PWR and unit 3 of the Doel plant. Accordingly, MOX has been loaded into these reactors since 1995.

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