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From nuclear phase-out advocate to nuclear promotional campaigner

From nuclear phase-out advocate to nuclear promotional campaigner

The nuclear transformation of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Open Vld already has one political side effect. Replicating Vivaldi’s coalition with the Greens will be difficult after 2024. “Campaign talk from a prime minister who has become a spokesman for the party,” says Jeremy Vannekhout, co-chair of the Greens.

Bart Eeckhout

It was a great photo from the UN Climate Conference in Dubai. Prime Minister De Croo appears in a photo next to French President Emmanuel Macron, Conference President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and others. In the background hangs the promise that unites the group: “Triple nuclear energy by 2050” – triple nuclear energy by 2050. This ambition is supported by twenty countries and should help eliminate fossil energy as much as possible by 2050. It is a challenge Saab: In August of this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency predicted another doubling, which is also an optimistic estimate.

The Belgian commitment does not yet extend beyond the picture. Prime Minister De Croo himself did not sign the statement in Dubai. This was not possible, because such a signature must first obtain approval from the Council of Ministers, which was not even requested. “De Croo does not speak on behalf of the government. This is little more than election talk for the prime minister who has become his party’s spokesman, says Jeremy Vanneckhout, co-chair of Groen.

Sharp turn

The image fits into a broader pro-nuclear gambit by De Croo and Open Vld. The party has taken a turn before, under the presidency of Egbert Lachart, but now it is stepping up a notch. First, De Croo opened the door to extending the life of the Doyle 4 and Tehang 3 reactors not by ten but twenty years, as well as to investigate the restarting of other reactors. Party Chairman Tom Ongina came first. He put it the time That Belgium should fully support the construction of new, smaller power plants.

This is a sharp turn. Under Gwendolyn Rötten, Open Vld made the commitment to phase out nuclear weapons the breaking point of the previous “Swedish” government. Ultimately, Michel’s government set the final nuclear exit timetable, greatly limiting the current government’s options to change that. This movement came only after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy shock. Previously, De Croo’s government had been meticulously committed to phasing out nuclear weapons, something that made Rutten proud at the end of 2021. “Jay Verhofstadt laid down the law. I raised them,” she wrote on Twitter at the time: “Today, Alexander De Croo realizes “Getting out of old nuclear power.”

Now this is no longer the case at all. “The energy crisis has made it clear that the idea that we can adapt to a green energy transition using cheap and readily available gas is fragile,” explains Tom Ongina. “For us, security of energy supply and affordability is crucial. Nuclear energy then logically comes back into the picture.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) speaks to the press alongside Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo (left) and Rafael Grossi.AP photo

According to Ongina, the result is that you are already thinking about building new generation nuclear power plants. These so-called SMR reactors will be smaller, more flexible, and perhaps cheaper, too. “The electrification of energy supplies will lead to a significant increase in demand for electricity. Nuclear energy has its place in this mix, alongside renewable energy. Belgium has the know-how to play a leading role in this development.

Cost effective option

The liberal change in position did not come out of nowhere. De Croo is based on a recent study conducted by experts from Energyville. This showed that further extension of the two open nuclear reactors for an additional ten years could be a profitable option. This is much less certain if other reactors are reopened. Energyville also looked at whether SMEs could help. This may indeed be possible: if investment costs remain within limits, by 2050 small and medium reactors could provide nearly as much energy as nuclear power plants provide today.

That’s a big “if.” “Technically, there is no doubt that this new generation of SMEs is feasible,” says Peter Fingerhouts of Energyfill. “The question is whether it can also be financially profitable. It is about an investment that will only depreciate in value after 60 years. I do not see any industrial player who can take this risk without a government guarantee. In other countries as well, the question will be to what extent The extent to which the government wants to cover investment risks.

At the political level, the new nuclear controversy may seriously complicate the continuation of Vivaldi’s federal coalition. Open Vld wants the next government to repeal the nuclear phase-out law. Tom Ongina: “We are looking at a future of energy transformation without dogmas.” This is a difficult point for Gruen. “This is not a matter of faith,” says Jeremy Vanekhout. “The biggest challenge is to maintain the pace of investments in renewable energy, not nuclear energy. In any case, the two reactors will remain open until 2035. The SMR reactors will not be available until 2045 at the earliest, and I see test after test failing. It is foolish “Campaign about this now.”

Talk about the campaign. In March 2024, Belgium will host its first nuclear energy summit, co-chaired by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. This comes as part of preparations for the elections scheduled for June. Therefore, the potential for nuclear energy to become an issue in the electoral battle is high.

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