Why do we hear so much about decommissioning power stations?

Belgium's nuclear power stations have received increasing media coverage recently. Firstly, due to a number of current political issues such as the Doel 1 and 2 lifetime extension. This leads to greater interest in our activities, including from the media. Secondly, it is also true that in recent years we have been more open in communicating about our nuclear power stations. The status of each power station can now be easily monitored on ENGIE's Transparency website  Many news agencies regularly consult this site, as a result of which the media devotes more coverage to changes at the nuclear sites.

 

All these aspects together ensure more media coverage about our nuclear power stations. We can understand that people have questions about them, but there is certainly no cause for concern. Overall, there is on average one automatic shutdown per year per nuclear power station. The fact that a power station automatically shuts down in the event of the slightest irregularity actually demonstrates that the safety systems work. In Belgium, we have seven reactors, so it is perfectly normal that several instances of a power station shutting down will be reported in any given year. The situation is the same in neighbouring countries that have nuclear power stations.

How is the safety of nuclear power stations ensured?

Through a strong and intensive safety policy focusing on preventing unforeseen incidents via thorough maintenance of our facilities, through strong methods and procedures, and through well trained people.

 

Safety is also ensured by responding to possible anomalies efficiently and appropriately. The automatic shutdown of a power station actually demonstrates that the safety mechanisms in our power stations work perfectly. For the start-up of a power station, all safety systems at each power station are thoroughly tested and inspected so that, in the event of the slightest irregularity, they can maintain the power station in a safe condition under all circumstances.

 

The nuclear sector is also the most inspected and audited industry in the world. Every year, the Doel and Tihange sites are visited by an average of 50 audit or review teams. Some of these audits are mandatory inspections, but we also regularly and proactively ask international organisations to inspect our installations and methods. This enables us to endeavour at all times to continuously improve our site and comply with the most stringent international standards.

 

It is also important to know that the Belgian nuclear watchdog, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (AFCN/FANC), has authorised inspectors on our site at all times. They have access to all of our documents, analyses and reports. The AFCN/FANC closely monitors the safety of our facilities. They are perfectly aware of the status of our entities and communicate about it very openly.

What are INES notifications?

The INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) is a scale used to more easily situate the severity of incidents involving sources of ionising radiation.

 

All incidents which involve sources of ionising radiation and which could have an impact on the safety of people and the environment can be classified at one of 7 levels on the INES scale (from 1 to 7). This encompasses a very broad spectrum of incidents, ranging from the late performance of a test to a serious accident at a nuclear power station.

 

The INES scale, initially designed for large nuclear facilities, was thoroughly reviewed in 2008-2009 and is now applied to smaller nuclear facilities as well as industrial activities with radioactive sources and transport. The INES notifications for all Belgian nuclear facilities can be consulted on the website of the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (AFCN/FANC), www.fanc.fgov.be.

Have extra measures been taken in the wake of Fukushima?

In 2011, a very strong earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. The ensuing tsunami caused a huge amount of damage, including to the Fukushima nuclear power station. The European Commission subsequently required all European nuclear operators to conduct a 'stress test'. The purpose of the test was to examine the extent to which their facilities are able to withstand extreme natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, flooding and tornadoes.

 

The stress test concluded that our power stations are robust and are able to withstand extreme circumstances. This is due in part to the design of the power stations, which includes redundant (double, back-up) and various kinds of equipment. However, since everything can be improved, improvements were defined - in consultation with the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (AFCN/FANC) - and deployed at the Doel and Tihange sites. The total investment amounted to €200 million. Consequently, the nuclear power stations can now withstand even stronger earthquakes, even higher water levels and even more extreme external incidents.

 

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What is an emergency plan?

Safety is ENGIE Electrabel's number one priority. Safety also inherently means that, in addition to doing as much as possible to prevent incidents, we must also be prepared for unforeseen and extraordinary incidents. All measures to be taken in the event of an unforeseen and extraordinary incident are included in the emergency plan. In an emergency, we have three top priorities: the safety of our environment, the wellbeing of our personnel and the stability of our facilities.

 

First and foremost, we are prepared for incidents whose origin is internal. Incidents that could theoretically happen at a nuclear power station are known and described in detail. For each incident there are procedures, an emergency infrastructure and training programmes for our people.

 

Our nuclear power stations were already designed to be able to withstand external risks such as earthquakes and flooding.

Are emergency drills performed?

At least once a year, each reactor entity conducts a drill in which a nuclear incident is simulated. We also perform drills once a year with the police and once a year with the external fire brigade, and we conduct emergency plan drills on specific topics. In practice, six or seven emergency plan drills are conducted annually for each site, with various scenarios and various participants. After each drill, a thorough evaluation is conducted and methods are adapted accordingly. Here, too, we strive for continuous improvement.

Who is responsible for what in the event of an incident?

The emergency plan and, in particular, the measures pertaining to the environment, population, agriculture, etc. are matters of general interest and therefore fall under the purview of the government. ENGIE Electrabel itself is responsible for the safe operation of its facilities and for the rapid and accurate flow of information to the government.

 

In the event of a disaster, the nuclear power stations themselves are therefore responsible for the technical management of the incident on the site, i.e. gaining control of the incident as quickly as possible. They are also responsible for the safety and wellbeing of personnel and visitors on the site during the incident.

 

Did you know that the notification thresholds in Belgium are extremely low? As soon as the emergency services receive a call for any reason whatsoever (even if someone has merely fallen ill), we must follow the official notification circuit. The same applies once a power station shuts down. That is not always necessary in neighbouring countries. For those reasons, too, we sometimes find ourselves the subject of more media coverage than other nuclear power stations.

 

In the event of a nuclear accident, the government's crisis centre is authorised for communication and population-related measures. Obviously, this goes hand in hand with ongoing consultation between experts from the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (AFCN/FANC) and the nuclear power station.

How is liability settled in the event of an incident?

The third-party liability of the nuclear operator in Belgium is established by law. Electrabel fully complies with its legal obligations in this regard and has taken out a €1.2 billion third-party liability policy with the Belgian Nuclear Insurance Pool (SYBAN) for this purpose. International agreements have also been made in the past in this regard. Everything is arranged legally.

 

If the nuclear damage exceeds €1.2 billion, then the legal system provides that compensation will be paid by the Belgian state or other member states allied under the Treaty of Paris. This also applies to nuclear power stations in our neighbouring countries.