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Renewable + SMR nuclear reactors, the other energy future for Belgium

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By extending two nuclear reactors for ten years, Belgium is reopening, without admitting it to itself, the track of an energy future where the sector could find its place. In the form of small modular reactors, the famous SMRs, in 2040?

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We have to face the facts: Belgium can no longer promise that the extension of Doel 4 and Tihange 3 is the nuclear last stand. Rather than turning the page, she put it in parentheses at most. “Whatever the minister or the government, the capacity installed in Belgium in electricity production will always be sufficient to respond by means of production located in Belgium to the annual consumption peaks. There is therefore no no link between abandoning nuclear power and importing electricity.” Such was the promise made in the Chamber, on November 28, 2002, by Olivier Deleuze (Ecolo), then Secretary of State for Energy and Sustainable Development, a few hours before the vote on the law to phase out nuclear power.

“More than seventy SMR options are in development worldwide. We will undoubtedly have surprises, and good surprises. »

Twenty years later, the war in Ukraine has reminded us that the security of gas supplies in Europe is only a matter of one unacceptable diplomatic thread. That the price of this same gas determines that of electricity on the markets. And that in Belgium, the option of a renewable-gas combinationwhose carbon footprint would also be particularly harmful for at least twenty years, waiting for abundant green hydrogen, is not (or more) necessarily the most reasonable. Thus, “Ecolo’s DNA is no longer ‘Nuclear, no thanks!'”, as recently specified in The evening the co-presidents of the party, Rajae Maouane and Jean-Marc Nollet. Without give the green light to the sector however. “The analysis grid is the same: it must be less expensive, it cannot be polluting or dangerous. And at this stage, nuclear power does not meet these criteria, ”clarified Jean-Marc Nollet a few days later, on the airwaves of Bel RTL.

And yet. Proponents of the atom feared that phasing out nuclear buries the Belgian know-how in the matter, jeopardizing future opportunities to find it in a more consensual form (mainly in terms of safety and radioactive waste management). But the agreement on the extension of two nuclear reactors removes this uncertainty. He opens a hybrid chapter for the sector, where the maintenance of industrial know-how and the emergence of expertise in dismantling will coexist. Two skills that do not necessarily oppose each other, as Céline Parotte, lecturer at ULiège’s Spiral Research Center points out: “This obligation to think in a dual way seems essential to me. The complexity of this sector makes it necessary to do more the link between innovation and what is called exnovation, which aims to assume the end of a cycle and to take just as much care to deconstruct. This will call for the development of new expertise and new flagships.”

“We came to our senses”

For Thomas Pardoen, professor at UCLouvain and president of the scientific advisory committee of the Mol nuclear research center (SCK-CEN), “the politician will have lost a lot of time, but he has come to his senses. It was necessary maintain a nuclear industrial culture. To completely stop the sector, to rely only on the center of Mol, would have been a bit weak. To have saved her is a good thing, especially sinceit is not excluded that other nuclear reactors will be extended within a year or two. Technically, that’s not a problem. Politically, it is something else.

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France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Poland, Finland… In Europe, many countries have chosen to continue or return to nuclear power, particularly since the energy crisis. The extension agreement between the Belgian State and Engie, the operator of the Doel and Tihange power plants, is akin to a reprieve. Unlike the nations mentioned above, Belgium does not in fact plan to build any third-generation reactor, the European pressurized reactor, known as EPR, is one of the spearheads. But this ten-year bridge could well allow the country to resume an innovative nuclear path by 2040. “To achieve our climate goals, we will need all technologiesincluding nuclear”, confirmed the Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo (Open VLD), in May 2022. It was on the occasion of the launch of a one hundred million euro federal research program on the small modular reactors (SMR)more commonly referred to by the English acronym SMR), entrusted to the center of Mol.

Still based on fission, these SMRs, with a capacity of about 300 megawatts present four advantages compared to large power plants. A: “Even in the case of a second-generation SMR, using the same technology as our current power plants, its passive safety is greater, says Thomas Pardoen. It is inherent to the reactor. Since it is smaller, it cools all the better.” Two: the flyable capability of an SMR would give it a flexibility particularly compatible with the intermittence of renewable energies. Three: These small reactors can also work as a cogeneration unit, producing not only electricity, but also heat at different temperature levels. “Finally, versions using fast neutrons will be able to exhaust the fuel almost a hundred times better and therefore divide the quantity of waste by a factor of 100”, continues the expert. However, these latest versions will not be not operational before 2045.

Renewable scenario and SMR

Unfamiliar with prospective and quantified energy analyzeseven less planning policies allowing it to meet its objectives (including renewable production), Belgium has never envisaged any scenario combining renewable and nuclear, especially since its 2003 law still proscribes this hypothesis. Last year, however, the Flemish institute EnergyVille compared three energy paths by 2050: a so-called “central», incorporating a wide range of streams and technology options (electrification, energy efficiency, hydrogen, carbon capture, etc.), a scenario “clean molecules“, mainly focused on the import of synthetic fuels like green hydrogen, and a scenarioelectrification“, essentially combining a large offshore wind farm (16 gigawatts in the North Sea) and the commissioning of several SMRs on Belgian territory. Verdict: the latter appears to be the least expensive of the three to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible by this deadline.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all scenarios likely to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial era include a increase in the share of nuclear power in primary energy consumption. Knowing that Belgium will still be very far from the 100% renewable objective in the next two decades, can it still afford to rule out the hypothesis of a substantial contribution of nuclear beyond 2035? This is one of the issues between supporters and detractors of the sector. Because, technically, it is conceivable to consider commissioning of second-generation SMRs at this deadline. “These will be available from 2030, specifies Thomas Pardoen. Currently, more than 70 options are in development on the planet. We will undoubtedly have surprises, and good surprises. With the hope that their cost will decrease, in particular thanks to their standardization – do more with the same parts.”

Whatever the future place of nuclear power, its characteristics impose the backup of existing knowledge, hitherto underestimated, considers for her part Céline Parotte. “Whether you are for or against nuclear power, the question of memory is essential. Even for dismantling, we must continue to work with those who operated in these plants, and if possible with those who built them. We are not interested enough in these workers of the past, who still have a lot to teach us. All their testimonials should be archived in a very detailed way: what parts of the infrastructure were they assigned to, what were their practices, the most difficult parts to maintain? Like the State archives, the critical nature of nuclear installations and waste would justify the creation of a documentation center specific to the sectorindicates the FNRS researcher.

Beyond the potential SMRs that Belgium could one day adopt, the nuclear fusionthis still distant Grail auguring clean, safe and abundant energy, will only be not possible before 2060, in the best case. “I always say it’s a gift to future generations, concludes Thomas Pardoen. But it is not she who will save the planet in the time horizon we have. Ni will provide affordable electricity to two generations to come.” After having repeatedly overestimated its ability to develop renewable energies in the expected proportions, after its untenable promises in an uncertain world, Belgium cannot no longer afford indecision for twenty more years.

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