In the coming weeks, Belgium will decide whether or not to confirm the nuclear phase-out in 2025. That is to say to decide whether or not to extend certain nuclear reactors built in the 1970s. However, we cannot understand the decision. Belgium to exit nuclear power, taken at the instigation of Ecolo in the 2000s, without going back on the mistrust that arose in the seventies.
A new wind
Between 1969 and 1978 Belgium began construction of 4 nuclear reactors at Doel and 3 Tihange. A choice dictated among other things by the strong demand for electricity, by Belgium’s energy dependence. A choice also linked to the existence of a Belgian nuclear industry linked to the Katanga uranium that the Belgians sold on a massive scale to the Americans during the war and after.
At the same time, the 1970s saw the rise in power of a new environmentalist and ecologist current, from the May 1968 generation. It was the creation of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth. It is also the publication of the great works of political ecology by Ivan Illich or André Gortz. Nuclear power will very quickly become the hobbyhorse of this new movement. In France, in Germany and then in Belgium demonstrations swarm, the public debate settles, the opinion evolves.
Three Mile Island, 1979
One element will play an important role in the construction of this public opinion, it is the Three Miles Island accident in 1979 in the United States. 7 years before Tchernobyl, we sometimes forget it, but it was in the United States that nuclear power took off for the first time. The core of a reactor partially melted after several malfunctions. It is the largest accident in the history of American civil nuclear power. The accident sparked panic, as up to 200,000 people fled their homes for several days. Fortunately the worst was avoided, and the contamination limited.
For Mycle Schneider, consultant in the fields of energy and nuclear policy: in 1979, we came close to a major accident and a complete core meltdown. In Fukushima, three hearts melted. It is therefore a precursor accident. TMI reveals that plant management and the regulator did not understand what was going on in the reactor. To put it simply, a valve remained open while in the control room we could not see it. There was a loss of pressure in the reactor. This had a lot of repercussions on the design of the power plants and the principle of operation of the reactors. However, the consequences of the Three Mile Island accident were less important than we think. Historically, the historic peak in the creation of reactors in the world occurs in 1976. The industry was already in crisis before the accident and this disaster has further aggravated this crisis.
But the nuclear industry, which has always claimed to have safe technology, must face a major accident, and recognize that there is a possibility (albeit a small one) that a plant will be out of control. In the United States and in Europe, and at home in Huy, this is triggering a wave of questions and concerns. In the United States, many power plant projects will also be frozen.
At home, in Huy, a few days after the accident in the USA, on April 6, 1979, mayor Fernand Hubin announced an emergency municipal decree. It demands the immediate shutdown of the Tihange power plant. Unfortunately, no government has spent 100 minutes dealing with the nuclear issue. We have spent 100 days solving community problems, but the health and lives of populations do not seem to me to be of concern to the government.
The closure of the plant will not really take place. The manager simply disconnects the reactor from the electricity grid. Three days later, the State will quash the decision of the mayor. But in Belgium as elsewhere in Europe and the United States, nuclear power will never be the same again. We now know that zero risk does not exist.
Szymon Zareba, head of the ETOPIA archive center, a center for animation and research in political ecology, partly funded by Ecolo with whom he works closely. The TMI accident is an important event. But the question to ask is why it has such a stir among us. A year earlier, there was the Andenne referendum which brought nuclear power to the forefront. For several years, there have been fears and questions in France, Germany and Belgium. The decision to close in Huy reflects this context.
The Andenne referendum
Another event therefore weighed heavily in the history of nuclear contestation in Belgium. It was the Andenne referendum in 1978. Intercom wanted to install a nuclear power station in the town. It also signed an agreement with the city in 1969. But, faced with the protest of the population, elected officials change their minds. In 1977, they decided to convene a popular consultation. A first of its kind. The debate lasts a year. The exchanges are most often lively. And the result is final. The mobilization is massive (almost 75% participation), 90% of voters say no to Ohey and 84% to Andenne.
Szymon Zareba, head of the Etopia archive center, explains that the Andenne referendum is an outcome. Such a result does not happen like that. There is an environmental movement which was created with New Democracy in 1973 and Friends of the Earth in 76. They organize information and educational work. At the time, nuclear power was largely opaque and in a cult of secrecy which fueled the anti-nuclear fight. These groups quickly submitted lists to the elections. There is a desire to influence the debate.
The environmental movement and Ecolo
What the Andenne referendum reveals is that for environmental movements, recourse to democracy, in particular to local democracy, is seen as the best solution to get out of nuclear power. It is absolutely essential. Nuclear decisions are taken at the national level and hardly ever go through parliament. Faced with this, environmentalists defend full federalism.
For this researcher, nuclear power is therefore a link between the various environmental groups of the 1970s. But opposition to nuclear power involves more than the problem of safety and pollution. As early as 1972, the social project behind nuclear power was called into question. In 1972, the Meadows report shows that growth cannot be pursued infinitely in a finite world. And nuclear is the chimera which makes believe that we could have an energy which could feed this infinite growth in a secure way. This is the root of political ecology.
Ecolo was born from these struggles and was created in 1980. The phase-out of nuclear power was on its program from the start and is deeply linked to this context of the 1970s. Opposition to nuclear power is a binder for the environmental movement and for Ecolo. But that’s not the only thing at stake in the party, it would be too simple.
Ecolo is the direct heir to these anti-nuclear mobilizations of the 1970s. From his first participation in the federal government in 1999, he made the exit from nuclear power a major point. Today, he is in power again and finds himself having to confirm or not the exit planned for 2025. But the context is different, global warming is now the main concern of the population. Between the anti-nuclear fight of the 1970s and the fight for the climate today, Ecolo will perhaps find itself in the coming weeks facing a very painful choice.