Nuclear power in Parliament: what are we talking about?

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Even though the nuclear issue should be debated by various citizens, and information on the risks that this energy source poses to humanity should be clear to all before making a lucid choice, what is the state of this discussion in the places of power? What is the level of consciousness of those who make choices for us in the parliamentary hemicycles and what interests do they defend? Meeting with Eloi Glorieux, in charge of energy at the NGO Greenpeace.

Kairos. How did you experience the parliamentary exchanges that took place during the extension of the plants and what was your involvement in this process?

Eloi Glorieux. There have been hours and hours of debate in the Parliament with only one constant: Marghem continued to lie, and I use the word « lie » because it is not « not really telling the truth », no it is really lying. Moreover, the AFCN (Federal Agency for Nuclear Control), if we asked them for information before the debate, we often had to wait two-three-four weeks, but they gave us the information; during the debate, they gave us nothing more. For example, documents on the status of Doel 1 and Doel 2. but also on Doel 3, Tihange 2, the two cracked reactors; the results of all the tests that were done on the cracks, all of a sudden they refused to give us anything. They said:  » Afterwards, when the files are closed, we will give you all the documents « . But obviously, if we as an association want to participate in the political debate, we need the information before the political debate is closed, which was not the case. It is also a pity that Marghem, the government, and the AFCN refuse to allow the population to participate in this debate. They refused an environmental impact study on the extension, although we are obliged by the Espoo and Darius conventions(1), supposedly because there is no major work to be done. It is a bit strange when Electrabel says that the work they have to do to extend these reactors for 10 years will cost between 600 and 700 million euros. So 600 to 700 million euros without doing any major work, I wonder what they are going to give all that money to.

During the whole debate, which was, let’s say ardent, in the Parliament itself, I was excluded from participating as a representative of an association. It’s very strange, and it’s very significant. In the same way, some municipalities around Doel have now voted a motion in the Municipal Council asking that the population of their municipality participate in an environmental impact study because they are located within a perimeter of less than 30 km around the power plant; here too, these people have a direct interest and we refuse to let them participate in such an exercise. This is a regression of democracy.

It is interesting when you say that Marghem lied to the Parliament. Do you have any examples to back up what you are saying?

Yes, she said,  » This is a study that was done that shows this and this and this very well… » The parliamentarians then said,  » If this is such an important study in this debate, give us a copy . Parliamentarians must at least have this study if they are to vote on the law and if you say that it is on the basis of this study that you have made your decisions. In the end, the study was a two-page handwritten memo by an associate of his firm. There are also documents, which can be found in the annals of Parliament, where she says very precise things and, during the next session, when parliamentarians asked her to put these documents on the table, at the disposal of parliamentarians, she refused. It is therefore finally clear that this note did not exist or that it was a note to confuse.

You were talking about the boiling in the Parliament: was it really split majority/opposition in the reactions, or was it more subtle than that?

The majority of course, but I am surprised, still supported Marghem. The NVA is obvious, since what Marghem has done is to implement the NVA program; the MR, like the CD&V and the VLD, had approved, less than a year before, the extension of Tihange 1, but the closure of Doel 1 and Doel 2. Barely a year after the elections and now with the NVA in power, they suddenly changed their minds, when there was no reason to do so. The report of the CREG (Commission de Régulation de l’Électricité et du Gaz) now shows that there was absolutely no risk of closure… The CD&V and the Open Vld had occasional criticism, but no real opposition. They themselves were a little embarrassed about the way Marghem handled the matter, but they still did not react.

At the level of the opposition, there was a rather strong disagreement: I must say that there were Groen and Ecolo, it is obvious; the sp.a and the cdH too! We could see that they were well prepared, well documented; at the SP level, they followed the rest of the opposition. Obviously for the PS and the sp.a it was a bit embarrassing because they had approved the extension of Tihange 1 only a year ago, so it was a bit embarrassing to use arguments against the extension of Doel 1 and Doel 2, which normally they should have used a year before against the extension of Tihange 1. The Vlaams Belang, who are pro-nuclear, did not participate at all in the debate; the PTB a little, but they also made a good opposition.

How did this happen at the time you intervened?

There were hearings during which about fifteen people spoke. I was the only one to focus on the risks of extending the old reactors. What I’ve found is that it’s not really taken seriously yet. We always assume that  » it can’t happen here « . Even after, not only Chernobyl, but also Fukushima, even after all the glitches we had recently with our own reactors — sabotage at Doel 4, which a year later is still not solved, we still don’t know who did it and why, sabotage that caused the closure of the reactor for 4 months, so it’s not a small thing; and the cracks at Doel 3 and Tihange 2 where both reactors have been shut down for more than a year and a half. I guess in a month or two at the earliest, they will decide if they can restart or close permanently. So there were obviously safety risks at their centre that they completely overlooked, linked to reactors that are now 40 years old, whereas Doel 1/Doel 2 and Tihange 1, the three oldest reactors, were only designed to last 30 years. According to the nuclear phase-out law of 2003, they could continue until 40 years, so they were already given 10 years more, and now they are added 10 years again. This does not mean that we will certainly have a big accident, but it certainly increases the risk of an incident that can lead to a very serious accident.

But beyond this risk, recently only two reactors out of seven were operating…

This is the proof that our reactors, which are getting older and older, are also becoming less and less reliable (even if we only talk in terms of supply, we can no longer count on these old reactors). In a country that depends so much on nuclear power, this is a disaster. If we don’t say  » we’re going to go in the other direction, we’re going to reduce our dependence on nuclear power « , and we extend the old reactors, we increase the risks.

Were there any reactions at the Commission when these arguments were put forward?

There were a few questions, but they were pretty dumb questions like  » yes, but Greenpeace says that it is absolutely necessary to reduce greenhouse gases, so you want to build nuclear power plants too? « , or  » more people die from coal than from radiation from nuclear power plants « … well, that’s the kind of argument you hear. It is clear that these people do not really know the file and do not really know what it is about: they continue to claim that a serious accident in our country cannot happen; they do not even take this scenario into consideration. It was something that we saw before Chernobyl, after Chernobyl; but that we continue to do it after Fukushima is completely incomprehensible.

Was the name Fukushima mentioned during these discussions?

Not really. The problem was mainly « can we meet our electricity needs if we don’t extend these plants, and are there alternatives? The alternatives were, for example, to say « well yes, we can increase import capacity ». To which they replied,  » Oh no, that’s not right, we need at least three years to do it « The former director of the CREG stated that this was entirely possible, given that there is a reserve line from the Netherlands to Belgium, but this line is occupied by the current from Doel 1/2: therefore, if Doel 1/2 is closed, this line can be freed up to import electricity from Holland, which has too much at the moment. Moreover, why extend when we also know that following the decision to extend, a study by the CREG — and here again I am surprised that the CREG released this study only after the vote of Parliament and not before — showed that there was no danger of shortage last winter and that there is no more for this winter?

What’s amazing is that when you hear the opponents of nuclear power, like you and others, it’s very difficult to understand what the arguments are for. In a way, there is this history of energy security, whereas a few months ago there were only two reactors operating out of seven, so we are no longer sure of the reliability of each of the reactors; incidents can happen, so it is not so sure…

The closure of five out of seven reactors was just after the vote; the new CREG assessment also took place directly after the vote. Did they do this expressly, saying to themselves « we must not release all this information at the same time or close so many reactors before the vote, because otherwise it will be clear to everyone that nuclear power is not reliable ». At this point, some say yes, others say no…

But between these yeses and no’s, there is an argumentative discourse. I come back to what I was saying: the arguments I hear from the « cons » don’t find any real counter-arguments from the « pros », and so in the end the only argument I hear is « yes, but economically for the moment it’s the only way ».

A common argument is that each hour of reactor shutdown would cost our economy millions of euros. In this one, they say,  » You don’t want to risk that! » The answer is: « How much will it cost if there is an accident? « They retort:  » Oh no, that’s an accident, that’s not the point! At the same time, we learn, for example, that there is a city in Flanders where there was recently a power failure for three hours… and that nobody died! There are things that are much more serious than that. We would have to have an extremely cold winter, for at least three weeks, where there is no wind, where it is dark everywhere in Europe, at which time there could be problems for a few hours… So what! Everyone was aware of all these facts.

Jan Bens made a statement a few months ago about the security policy in Tihange, which he believes should be strengthened. How to interpret this?

The main purpose of this statement is to say  » well, you can see that we are quite strict « But it is also an indication that there are indeed problems with the safety of nuclear power plants; there is also the fact that more than a year later, the act of sabotage at Doel has still not been solved: who did it? What was the motive? It’s still pretty scary; also the fact that one of the people killed by IS (the Islamic State group) who had gone to fight in Syria, had a license to work at Doel… so for five years he was in and out, in and out, in the Doel nuclear power plant, with special permission. It was only after his death in Syria that they realized that this person could get into the nuclear power plants. So safety is really not what it should be.

Do we really know how to achieve a safety culture that would allow us to avoid all risks?

That’s part of the nature of nuclear power: no matter what safety measures you take, it will never be safe. Even the best protection cannot prevent an attack or an accident; in fact, every year we realize that there are new risks that we had not considered before. When the plants were designed, the idea of terrorists flying into the facility was not considered because it was not thought that this could happen. Zaventem is only a few minutes flight from Doel, so that means that the fuel tanks are still full at the moment of impact; moreover Doel is flat, not hilly like Tihange, you can see from a distance of several kilometers the power plants where the plane can easily descend without obstacles.

When the parliamentary discussions and the Commission began, did you go in thinking « well, there’s hope that this law won’t pass »?

From the beginning, Marghem was so straightforward, lying openly, that even the other parties of the majority were embarrassed by it. At that moment, I thought:  » Maybe now it can turn around « . But well, there was a discipline around the majority and they let her do it; at a certain point, she apologized before the Parliament saying only: « OYes, I may have a slightly stronger temperament than others, and that’s because of that, » but she didn’t say  » I didn’t exactly tell you the truth… ».

The only thing I could see at that time was that they were obliged to organize an environmental impact assessment first, including a public consultation, not only here in Belgium but also in the neighboring countries (the Espoo and Darius conventions stipulate this). What I also find very strange is that just one week after the vote of the Parliament, the judge decided that the Greenpeace appeal was without object, for completely absurd reasons. If he had said: « Yes, indeed, Darius and Espoo must be organized in Belgium « , at that moment there was a problem because you don’t organize that in a few months, it takes a year at least…

So we went to appeal, but we are also going to lodge a complaint with the Council of State, because the AFCN decided three weeks ago to approve Electrabel’s action plan without having organized an environmental impact study and a public consultation. During the parliamentary debate, the Council of State had given its opinion on the bill, and there it had clearly said: « Yes, an environmental impact study and a public consultation must be organized « . Marghem refused. I know of no example in our history where a minister does not care about the opinion of the Council of State. This is another example of how she acted: she really felt above the gods, the laws, the Council of State and anyone else!

Interview by Nicolas Bras,

Transcribed by Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. La convention d’Espoo (ou convention EIE) « est une convention sur l’évaluation de l’impact sur l’environnement dans les contextes « transfrontière » », voir wikipedia ; La convention Darius porte sur l’accès à l’information, la participation du public au processus décisionnel et l’accès à la justice en matière d’environnement.
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