BRUSSELS — A dispute among Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, centered on a pair of 40-year-old Belgian nuclear reactors roughly an hour’s drive from large cities across the border, is laying bare a growing European rift over nuclear energy.
The nations are clashing amid deeply conflicting attitudes on a continent where carbon-free nuclear energy has fallen out of favor among some countries while others are doubling down on it. The split has paralyzed bureaucrats in the European Union and complicated efforts to forge a coherent long-term energy policy.
On a crowded continent where environmental problems do not respect legal boundaries, the disputes become especially acute — and personal.
“Radioactive clouds do not respect municipal borders, let alone country borders,” said Gert-Jan Krabbendam, a member of the left-wing GroenLinks party who serves on the council of the Dutch city of Maastricht. “It cannot be that in this Europe of 2016, you aren’t acknowledged as neighbors, that you don’t get a say in this, and that this is treated as a national, sovereign matter.”
Antony Froggatt, an energy analyst at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, noted that the European Union has tried to forge common policies on a wide range of issues but finding common ground on energy has proved a particular challenge.
“You have all these areas where there is common EU policy,” said Mr. Froggatt. “In nuclear [power], there isn’t, and I think that’s because countries feel very strongly about it.”
In the past two years, several of Belgium’s seven reactors have been shut down repeatedly because of fires, oil and water leaks, one unresolved case of sabotage and the discovery of thousands of cracks in reactor vessels.
Mr. Krabbendam and other critics want the aging reactors taken offline.
“Technically, the reactors aren’t well-constructed,” he said. “They are old and worn out. There are problems with the staff. That produces an enormous laundry list of incidents, which has us wondering, ‘When will things go wrong?’ Do we have to wait for that to happen?”
A group of Dutch cities and German towns are preparing a joint legal complaint before the Council of State in Belgium — the country’s top administrative court — to contest the continuing operation of Tihange 2, one of the cracked reactors.
Though Belgium has tried to placate its neighbors with joint plant inspections and other overtures, Interior Minister Jan Jambon has stood firm against the idea of shutting them down altogether. Unlike its Dutch and German neighbors, Belgium draws 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. It has few options but to maintain its nuclear facilities or face blackouts until it has developed alternative power sources.
Concerns about adequate energy supplies have prompted Belgium’s center-right government to extend the life spans of two 1970s-era reactors — the country’s oldest — by a decade, delaying a total nuclear phaseout until 2025.
“How a country’s security of supply will be met and ensured are decisions for policymakers to take,” said Anne-Sophie Huge, a spokeswoman for the Belgian nuclear power plant operator Electrabel. “But, indeed, if people want to abandon nuclear energy in 2025, they need to examine today how they will replace those 6,000 megawatts.”
A supply of 6,000 megawatts per hour can power about 6 million homes.
Belgium is facing its dilemma as European countries pursue radically different and, at times, conflicting nuclear agendas, with anti-nuclear Germany and the Netherlands at the one extreme and pro-nuclear France and Britain at the other.
After the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel abruptly vowed to eliminate nuclear energy by 2022 and the Netherlands shelved plans for a new reactor. In sharp contrast, France is slated to build two more reactors by 2030 and Britain, under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, has proposed four more.
Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, insists that nuclear energy is on its way out across the Continent. EU states, even those pursing reactors, just haven’t realized it yet, she said.
“The continuity of the whole nuclear development was broken already in 1986,” she said, noting that France and Finland have built the only two reactors in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine that year.
According to the Brussels-based European Nuclear Society, there are a total of 184 nuclear power plants in 18 countries on the Continent, including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with 16 more under construction or in the planning phase. The European Union’s nuclear industry accounted for 27 percent of the electricity generated within the bloc in 2014, including nearly 77 percent of all power in France, 56.8 percent in Slovakia and 53.6 percent in Hungary.
New reactors face a host of obstacles, both financial and political. A majority of citizens in Europe don’t support nuclear energy, Ms. Harms said. In addition to the dangers associated with accidents, reactors require massive infusions of public funds to construct, she said.
Austria and Luxemburg, which are non-nuclear nations, have filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice contesting the European Commission’s approval of a $26.25 billion French-designed reactor called Hinkley Point C in Somerset, England. They argue that the planned plant is receiving illegal state subsidies.
“Hinkley has divided the EU in a clear way,” said Mr. Froggatt. “Some countries are saying: ‘No, the support scheme that is being given Hinkley is bad for the electricity market of Europe and will distort it,’ while countries like Romania, the Czech Republic and others have come in behind the U.K. and have said, ‘We support the [European] Commission’s approval.’”
In Eastern Europe, nuclear power still enjoys broad popular support. Some countries, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, see nuclear power as part of a strategy to limit their dependency on Russian natural gas. Alternatively, Hungary is expanding its sole nuclear power plant with a $10.9 billion Russian loan, which critics complain will give Moscow too much influence over Budapest.
In Bulgaria, leaders are also embracing nuclear energy because of costs.
“The overwhelming reason why the Bulgarian government has been supportive of nuclear is because, so far, they haven’t been able to find a cheap enough alternative,” said Ruslan Stefanov, director of the economic program at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy.
In the past, Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation, invested in coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric facilities, wind farms and solar power grids, said Mr. Stefanov. But those renewable sources proved costly compared with running an existing nuclear facility at Kozloduy on the Danube River. Shutting down Kozloduy would result in higher utility rates, a “political no-go,” he said.
But Mr. Froggatt sees few advantages to the divisive status quo.
To meet targets set at the Paris climate conference last year, EU states are encouraged to expand renewable energy sources and better connect their electrical grids, he said. “There needs to be a greater common EU policy because, I think, the whole sector is going to have to shift and transform,” he said.
But a more unified EU energy policy is unrealistic when citizens are increasingly wary of giving Brussels more power and the Syrian refugee crisis tops the political agenda.
“The best that you could hope for is a situation whereby the EU as an institution and as a process will ensure that there are the highest possible nuclear safety standards,” said Mr. Froggatt. “You can’t imagine a situation whereby the [European] Commission would say, ‘Every country has to have nuclear power.’ Likewise, it would be hard to imagine they would say, ‘Every country has to switch off its nuclear plants.’”