Top man in Belgium's nuclear regulatory agency played Santa Claus to anti-nuclear lobby
“In all honesty, if I consider the risk, I would choose other forms of energy.”
- outgoing head of Belgium’s Agence Fédérale de Contrôle Nucléaire (AFCN), December 24, 2012
It is sometimes interesting to hear the frank thoughts of retiring politicians and officials, and more interesting when they try to bring about the change that was impossible in their official roles. Al Gore is famous for his campaign to raise awareness of global warming. Mikhail Gorbachev atoned for Chernobyl by establishing Green Cross, Jimmy Carter worked for Habitat for Humanity and Bill Clinton organized the foundation of a public health care system for Rwanda. George H.W. Bush has a reputation for enjoying golf and the lecture circuit, but he too has supported various good causes. It seems like powerful people can do more for the world after they are out of power, if they decide to use their public profiles and retirement time well.
A recent addition to this list might be Willy De Roovere. He’s not a former world leader, but he is a rare nuclear industry insider who was willing to publicly discuss the problems with nuclear energy that have become evident in the post-Fukushima world. Speaking as the head of a nuclear regulatory agency, it is remarkable to see him express these doubts. It is unthinkable that a top French, American or Japanese regulator would dare to express such misgivings about nuclear energy policy. In fact, directors are literally not allowed to express any personal opinions based on their years of experience in the industry. What they say in their official capacity must always be the official line that is the compromised, consensus view of the director’s allies and foes within the agency. However, on the eve of retirement, things can be different.
The report below is a translation of an article in Le Monde that appeared in late December, 2012. I was waiting to see if English language media would pick it up, but none did, so it fell on me to translate it for the English speaking world.
Le Monde 2012/12/27
(translated from the original French report)
The director of the Belgian Agence Fédérale de Contrôle Nucléaire (AFCN) until the end of the year, Willy De Roovere, caused a sensation in his country by calling into question the safety of the industry. “We should ask ourselves if the risk of nuclear is still acceptable,” he explained on Monday December 24, on a public Flemish language radio broadcast. This top regulator managed in the past, among other responsibilities, the Doel nuclear power plant, one of two in Belgium.
“In all honesty, if I consider the risk, I would choose other forms of energy,” added Mr. De Roovere in this interview, evoking the economic risks linked to such a decision. Every industry carries some risk, he continued, “but it is very difficult in the present period” to make the population accept the risks associated with nuclear energy - in particular, in a territory as densely populated as Belgium, where an evacuation could involve hundreds of thousands of people. Mr. De Roovere explained in another interview published on Tuesday in the Belgian daily Le Soir, “My thoughts are a consequence of the catastrophe in Fukushima. With nuclear the risks are low, but the consequences of an accident can be extremely serious.”
“The existing power plants must be watched very closely.”
The director of the AFCN feels that from now on it is appropriate, in Belgium and in Europe, to avoid constructing more nuclear power plants. As for existing ones, “They must be watched very closely,” he declared. With regard to next generation reactors, Mr. De Roovere insists, “Each country should debate while keeping in mind the principal question: what is the level of residual risk that is acceptable for the population? I suppose this discussion took place in France when there was a decision to construct an EPR reactor.”
Nonetheless, Mr. De Roovere has a reassuring attitude about the regulation of Belgian nuclear installations. If he thinks the controls can never exclude the possibility of a failure, he states, “we can ensure that a failure will not lead to a catastrophe. And, until now, no discovered faults in the facilities have posed any risk to the population.”
The comments by the top person at the agency came as a surprise because two Belgian reactors, Tihange 2 and Doel 3 have been stopped since August. Their reactor vessels had numerous micro-fissures. Operated by Electrabel, subsidiary of GDF Suez, these reactors are the most modern of seven reactors in Belgium, and they supply 30% of electricity consumption in the country.
The AFCN will have to decide, probably within twenty days, if it will authorize their restart. It is the successor of Mr. De Roovere, Jans Bens, another former director of Doel, who must make this decision. This past summer, the AFCN announced that it was “skeptical” about a restart of Doel 3.
In Europe, safety inquiries have not always been convincing.
Electrabel declared in early December that Tihange 2 and Doel 3 could restart immediately. Teams of electricians, assisted by foreign experts, confirmed that international standards had been met at the time of construction of the power plants. The metal of the reactor vessels is sound and bubbles had resulted from minimal flaws caused by hydrogen.
These bubbles were formed at the time when the vessels were forged by a Dutch company, Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM). At the time when the reactors were stopped, the former head of this corporation rejected this theory.
The final decision of the AFCN, which is a prelude to the final decision by the Belgian government, will be followed with interest in other countries. This is because RDM sold twenty similar reactor vessels throughout the world. Also, in the aftermath of Fukushima, there is strong concern about all nuclear installations in Europe. The inquiries that have been launched by the European Commission attempted to be reassuring, but they haven’t convinced all parties.
On the other hand, the Nuclear Forum, a Belgian lobby group, believes that stress tests have proven that nuclear power plants in Europe, and particularly in Belgium, are safe. It finds Mr. De Roovere’s position “incomprehensible.”
After various reversals, several months ago the Belgian authorities adopted a timetable for moving beyond nuclear. It plans a definitive stop of five reactors in 2025, and Doel 1 and 2 are to stop in 2015. The decision was made before conclusive tests were complete, which leaves the door open to other changes in the plan.
Unless a crisis of supply – a real possibility evoked in an official report last May – comes along to upset these plans.