• Request involves Belgian nuclear reactors Tihange 2, Doel 3
  • German ministry calls query on Belgian plants `unusual'

The German government made an unprecedented request of Belgium to temporarily shut two nuclear reactors, citing technical issues involving possible safety defects.

Germany asked Belgium to take Engie SA’s Tihange-2 and Doel-3 atomic plants offline until the safety concerns can be addressed, Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said Wednesday in an e-mailed statement. The two facilities, which were shut for investigations for 20 months, are safe to operate, Belgium’s nuclear regulator AFCN said in response to the request.

“We’ve never made such a request to a neighboring state before,” Deputy Environment Minister Jochen Flasbarth told reporters on a conference call. “This is an unusual procedure.”

Engie’s Belgian unit Electrabel operates the two reactors. AFCN decided Nov. 17 that the reactors were safe to restart after investigations of the steel walls of the reactor vessels. With the approval, AFCN concluded the defects don’t affect safety. The two units account for about 14 percent of the nation’s installed power capacity.

“I don’t see this developing into another issue for Engie,” Elchin Mammadov, utilities analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence said by phone. “Nuclear security is the prerogative of national regulators.”

Germany is phasing out nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima atomic accident in Japan in 2011, instead developing an energy market built on wind and solar power. The nation is set to close down its remaining eight reactors by 2022.

The plants resumed output by the end of last year. Germany wasn’t satisfied with AFCN’s assessment and called for a Belgium-German working group and for the national independent reactor safety commission, known as RSK, to examine the security issue. The commission concluded that in case of an incident it is unclear that safety provisions are adequate.

Germany’s query must now be assessed by Belgian authorities, Flasbarth said. The Belgian Energy Ministry declined to comment and referred questions to the regulator.

Astonished Watchdog

The watchdog said Wednesday that the units meet the most strict safety standards and that it was astonished by the German request.

AFCN is willing to work with German counterparts provided that there is willingness to be “constructive,” according to a statement. It doesn’t intend to reverse its decision to allow the reactors to operate.

‘Our reaction is surprise,” Geetha Kayaert, a spokeswoman for Electrabel, said by phone. “We have proven that the reactor vessels are safe and it’s the result of a very long process of research that has been evaluated and confirmed by experts in Belgium and abroad. The AFCN decided the reactors were safe to restart.”

Doel-3 has a capacity of 1,006 megawatts, while Tihange-2 has a capacity of 1,008 megawatts. The units have permission to operate until their retirement on Oct. 1, 2022 and Feb. 1, 2023, respectively, according to AFCN’s website.

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