1975, only two years after the first oil crisis hits the globe that the nuclear power plant in Tihange, Belgium is switched on. At the time, nuclear power seemed an one-way road and a crucial tool towards an independent energy market in the West, being surrounded by communists and oil-rich Arab kingdoms.
Nevertheless, it is no secret that nuclear power entrails several risks, that increase exponentially as reactors age. Therefore, in 2003 the government of Belgium vowed to shut all reactors running for more than 40 years, additionally promising to completely phase out nuclear energy by 2025. This decision meant that to the first of the three reactors of Tihange would cease operating on the 1st of October 2015. Yet surprisingly, in 2012, the Belgian government decided to extend its lifespan by more ten years, explaining they feared shortages in national energy supply. As it turned out, what most people feared differed very much from had the government had in mind.
On the same year, it was revealed that the reactors in Tihange and Doel had more than 2000 design flaws and incidents. News about explosions on the compound, the leakage of two liters of radioactive waste per (since 2005) and was not fixed, the malfunction of heating elements or the leakage of 600 liters of acidic water into the river Maas reached the public and led to demonstrations in Maastricht, a Dutch city near the Belgian border.
Three years later, in 2015, that the number had multiplied to 3150 incidents and design flaws. These flaws, measured up to 15 centimeters after inspection with an ultrasound gauge count. In September 2016 the reactors Tihange-1 and -2 were temporarily deactivated by the operator Electrabel, because some of the buildings had been damaged by the installment of new paving tiles and the structural integrity in case of an earthquake could not be guaranteed.
Furthermore, for years the emergency engine coolant of the reactors Tihange-1, -2 and Doel-3 was already preheated to 40 degrees Celsius, fearing the damaged reactor pressure tank would suffer a thermal overload. Yet, if the temperature had exceeded 50 degrees Celsius, the reactor would no longer be sufficiently cooled which can lead to a core meltdown.
In face of all these serious concern, in 2016, the German city of Aachen, situated just 57 kilometers at the south-west of Tihange, Maastricht and the Luxembourgish city Wiltz filed a lawsuit against the Belgian state council concerning the operation of Tihange-2. The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rhineland Palatinate bordering Belgium soon followed suit. Additionally, the minister on environmental affairs of North Rhine-Westphalia, Johannes Remmel announced that his state and the state of the Rhineland Palatinate would appeal against both Tihange and Doel to the UN and the European Commission.
In addition to these formal attempts to shut down the nuclear power stations, the public started several initiatives to raise awareness and manifest its discontent. For instance, the mayor of Aachen and the city council, as long as other public representatives have spoken in open support of these demonstrations, hoping to influence Belgian authorities.
On the 25th of June 2017 protests reached their peak, as people formed a 90 kilometer-long human chain stretching from Aachen through Maastricht and Liège to Tihange. The organisers counted more than 50,000 participants. The situation keeps escalating as several cities in Germany such as Euskirchen, Düren and Aachen have announced their plan to distribute free iodine tablets to citizens, in order to prevent thyroid cancer in case of a serious accident at the nuclear power stations.
For the director of operations of Tihange, Jean-Philippe Bainier, this reaction seems a little over exaggerated, as he considers Tihange one of the safest nuclear power stations in Europe, or even worldwide, having recently told the German newspaper “Aachener Zeitung”.
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All of the photos below were taken from the author herself