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Tihange – A Ticking Danger at the Heart of Europe

It has been a long time since in 1975, only two years after the first oil crisis the nuclear power plant of Tihange, Belgium was brought on stream. At this time nuclear power was a crucial tool to the western countries aiming to become more independent by producing their own energy. Nevertheless it is no secret that nuclear power entrails several risks, that multiply with the proceeding age of the reactors. Therefore in 2003 the government of Belgium decided to run none of their nuclear power plants for more than 40 years. In fact, additionally it was decided that Belgium will completely stop producing nuclear energy by 2025. This decision set an end to the use of the first of the three reactors of Tihange, the 1st of October 2015 should be its last day operating. Yet surprisingly, in 2012 the Belgian government decided to extend the operation time for ten years, explaining they feared bottlenecks in the national energy supply. As it turned out the people’s fears differed very much from the governments worries.

In 2012 it was revealed that the reactors of Tihange and the second Belgian nuclear power plant Doel contained more than 2000 flaws. More and more information about explosions on the compound, the leak of two liters of radioactive water per day, which happened since 2005 and could not be fixed, the dysfunction of heating elements or the leak of 600 liters of acidic water into the river Maas reached the public ear and led to demonstrations in Maastricht, a Dutch city near the Belgian border. Only three years later in 2015 it became acquainted, that the number of flaws had multiplied up to 3150. These flaws, detected with an ultrasound gauge count up to 15 centimeters. 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 raising paving tiles and the solidity 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 had been preheated to 40 degrees Celsius, because it was feared the damaged reactor pressure tank would succumb a thermal overload. Yet if the temperature exceeded 50 degrees Celsius the reactor would no longer be sufficiently cooled which can lead to a core meltdown. Facing all these deficiencies, in 2016 the German city region of Aachen, situated just 57 kilometers at the south-west of Tihange, the Dutch city Maastricht and the Luxembourgian city Wiltz filed a lawsuit at the Belgian state council against the onward activity of Tihange-2, the German states North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland Palatinate bordering Belgium joined the suit.

Additionally the minister charged with environmental issues of North Rhine- Westphalia Johannes Remmel announced that his state and the state of Rhineland Palatinate would appeal against both Tihange and Doel to the UN and the European Commission. Apart from these formal attempts to shut down the nuclear power stations the public started several initiatives to raise awareness and manifest their discontent. For instance there have been demonstrations supported by the mayor of Aachen and all fractions of the city council or the representative levers which were set up in the region and count the number of times they are used each day, to send the information to those in authority in Belgium. On the 25th of June 2017 the actions peaked in a 90 km long human chain from Aachen over Maastricht and the Belgian city Liège to Tihange. The local promoters counted more than 50 000 participants. The situation becomes more and more controversy as several cities in Germany such as Euskirchen, Düren and Aachen have announced to distribute iodine tablets free of charge to the population, in order to prevent thyroid cancer in case of an serious accident at the nuclear power stations. For the director of Tihange Jean-Philippe Bainier this might seem a little exaggerated. He considers Tihange one of the safest nuclear power stations in Europe, or even worldwide, as he told the German newspaper “Aachener Zeitung” just recently.

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