Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Netherlands revisits the nuclear taboo


The only Dutch nuclear power plant is due to close in 2013. But the impending return of reprocessed nuclear waste from France raises questions about the future of nuclear power in the Netherlands. Aaron Gray-Block reports.

A Greenpeace ship arrived in the French port of Cherbourg on Monday 27 September to await the arrival of nuclear waste from the US. The environmental lobby group is particularly concerned about this shipment as it contains weapons-grade plutonium.

Meanwhile, the Dutch authorities are bracing themselves for another controversial transport of reprocessed nuclear waste, also from France.

Secrecy initially surrounded the planned shipment as the Dutch government refused to reveal when it will arrive in a bid to frustrate protests planned by Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear groups.

Nevertheless, it was later revealed that the recycled waste would be transported from France to the southern Dutch city of Vlissingen on 29 September. Greenpeace activists gathered at the storage depot to protest its arrival.

The highly radioactive material originates from Borssele, the Netherlands' only operating nuclear reactor which is located along the Westerschelde inlet in Zeeland.

Nuclear power is almost a taboo subject among the Dutch public and Parliament decided in 1994 that it had no place in the Netherlands. Borssele was earmarked for closure by the end of 2003.

But the Dutch government lost a court battle in September 2002 to force the early closure of the reactor. The government has now decided it will continue operating until 2013.

The Netherlands has two other small research reactors in Delft and Petten. The only other power generating plant, at Dodewaard, was closed in 1997.

A spokesman for the Economic Affairs Ministry told Expatica that the Dutch government's policy is very simple: there are no plans to construct new nuclear plants in the Netherlands.

Economic Affairs Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst is not in principle opposed to nuclear energy, but the spokesman said no decisions will be made about nuclear power in the coming period. Despite this, he said "it is important to keep discussions going in Europe".

And under the current Dutch Presidency, the European Union reaffirmed its desire on 27 September to get broad international backing for a revolutionary nuclear energy project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

The ITER is the world's first prototype reactor for nuclear fusion, which is billed as a clean, safe, inexhaustible energy source of the future. It is the subject of rival bids from France and Japan.

Within the six-party ITER framework — which also includes Japan — the US and South Korea support the Japanese site, but the EU wants to build the reactor in France and has won support from China and Russia.

The Dutch presidency is moving to settle the disagreement over the location by the end of November.

Domestically though, officials in the Netherlands were focusing their attention on the impending return from Cap La Hague in France of the first ever transport of nuclear waste originating from the Borssele reactor.

Dutch electricity producer EPZ readied the transport on 22 September, but the French government was left to decide when the transport would depart.

The load of 28 rust-free 160lr drums will be stored above ground for at least 100 years at a new depot operated by the Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste (COVRA) in Vlissingen.

EPZ has a total of 120 drums of high radioactive waste stored in La Hague in French Normandy. The stockpile has grown because of the lack of proper storage facilities in the Netherlands — until the Vlissingen depot was ready.

EPZ expects in future to make one nuclear waste transport a year to the Netherlands. A lack of domestic storage capacity and political squabbling has delayed the return of the nuclear waste to the Netherlands.

French firm Cogema recycles the spent Dutch fissionable material in its La Hague factory to recover reusable uranium. A small amount of plutonium is also created.

But Borssele does not produce weapons-grade plutonium and unlike the US, the Netherlands does not have nuclear weapons.

EPZ says the decision to reprocess is purely a financial one. The firm's website says that 95 percent of the waste can be re-used after recycling, leaving 5 percent that is absorbed into glass in rust-free drums that are then sealed and transported to storage depots.

The Dutch government approved recycling in 1981.

Greenpeace opposes reprocessing and has raised concerns about what will happen when all storage capacity is exhausted. It also claims that recycling is detrimental for the environment because La Hague discharges radioactive matter into the sea. It also claims recycling is a source for nuclear proliferation.

The lobby group says an increasing number of countries, including Germany, are opting to store their nuclear waste without recycling it. But Cogema disputes this, claiming that the US — which has been directly storing its waste since the 1970s — is envious of the French recycling technique.

Given its poor image in the Netherlands, it is hardly surprising just 4 percent of the nation's energy is nuclear-based, compared with 76 percent in France and 57 percent in Belgium.

The Nuclear Vision Foundation (Stichting Kernvisie) hopes to change nuclear power's negative image. It forecasts that existing energy production systems will not be able to meet increasing demands, and solar and wind sources will be unable to fill the gap. "Additional sources like nuclear power will be needed," it says.

The foundation claims incomplete information and ignorance have resulted in nuclear power becoming taboo. Its aim is to increase public acceptance of nuclear power as a reliable and environmentally friendly source of energy and to stimulate the development and use of nuclear power

EPZ emphasised its concern for safety in August, announcing it was investing EUR 22 million in new safety systems and modes of operation at the Borssele plant.

It opted for the new investment despite an internal investigation indicating the reactor more than satisfies present international safety obligations. A full safety inspection is required under Dutch law every 10 years.

EPZ also said continued refinements means that the Borssele reactor will remain one of the safest nuclear plants in the world.

Unimpressed, Greenpeace is demanding that the Borssele reactor definitely close in 2013, when the plant will be 40 years old. It says safe nuclear power is a myth and campaigns "to end nuclear power, reprocessing and waste dumping".

And the Netherlands also appears to be steering clear of new investment in nuclear power. The ministry spokesman indicated the focus will instead be on utilising gas supplies, renewable energy and more efficient energy use.

The gas field in the province of Groningen is the largest in Western Europe and the Cabinet agreed in June to develop the gas fields underneath the Wadden Sea by drilling in a diagonal direction from off the mainland.

The government's target is that windmills in the North Sea will generate 6,000 megawatt of electricity by 2020. Combined with 1,500 megawatt on land, wind energy could supply power to all 6 million Dutch households all year round.

The ministry spokesman said the Netherlands also intends to concentrate in coming years on biomass electricity production and energy efficiency.

But given the benefits and negatives associated with nuclear power, the government still has to give a clear answer to the question: what are you doing in 2013?

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