Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert

Multiple reactor shutdowns in Belgium and the U.K. are a reminder of the potential brittleness of power systems reliant on a small number of large generators

4 min read
Nuclear Shutdowns Put Belgians and Britons on Blackout Alert
An idled reactor at Belgium's Tihange station boosts the risk of winter blackouts.
Photo: Eric Lalmand/AFP/Getty Images

A bad year for nuclear power producers has Belgians and Britons shivering more vigorously as summer heat fades into fall. Multiple reactor shutdowns in both countries have heightened concern about the security of power supplies when demand spikes this winter.

In Belgium, rolling blackouts are already part of this winter's forecast because three of the country's largest reactors—reactors that normally provide one-quarter of Belgian electricity—are shut down.

Belgium's troubles started brewing two years ago during inspections at the country's seven nuclear reactors, all operated by Belgian utility Electrabel. Ultrasound inspection of the reactor pressure vessels at the utility's Doel power station near Antwerp revealed previously unrecognized defects at its 1,000-megawatt reactor #3.

Prior tests looked only for aging of the welds between a pressure vessels' steel plates, but this time broader inspections at Doel 3 detected thousands of tiny cracks in the plates themselves. The cracks were most likely created when the plates were originally forged. In response, Electrabel shut down the 1,000-MW reactor #2 at its Tihange power station in eastern Belgium, because its pressure vessel was forged by the same Dutch shipyard as Doel 3's. Once it was shutdown, the company found similar microcracks.

Despite all of the attention paid to terrorist threats, insider threats remain the most serious challenge confronting nuclear facilities

The cracks reduce the vessels' capacity to withstand spiking pressures and temperatures during an accident. Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) decided that the resulting risk was acceptable and cleared the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors to restart in the summer of 2013. But in March 2014 Electrabel shut them down again following tests at Belgium's national research lab in Mol. Researchers there irradiated steel with comparable microcracks and observed a greater-than-anticipated reduction in the steel's strength.

It was the shutdown of a third 1,000-MW reactor that threw Belgium into a tizzy this August. This time it was reactor #4 at Doel, where leaking lubricant damaged the plant's steam turbine. A spokesperson for Electrabel revealed that the leak resulted from "an apparently deliberate manual intervention” of the turbine's oil drain, according to a Flanders Today report.

Prosecutors and anti-terrorism agents swooped in to investigate the alleged sabotage, while Belgium's government and power distributors began crafting plans for rolling blackouts this winter. The blackout plans, released in broad form early this month and at the street-by-street level last Friday, lay out how distributors can ration power supplies.

Response to the plans has been explosive

Response to the plans has been explosive. Belgian media reports are replete with recriminations by elected officials questioning the fairness of the plans. Those representing small communities are irked that big cities are to be largely spared, and some Belgians perceive national favoritism at work. Last week leading Flemish politician Koenraad Degroote accused Secretary of State for Energy Catherine Fonck, a francophone, of going easy on Belgium's French-speaking communities.

Seen through the lens of energy policy, Belgium's troubles are a classic example of the "brittleness" of large electrical systems —a concept developed by systems analysts Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins in Brittle Power, their classic 1982 treatise on energy security. The Lovins' central point is that reliance on a small number of large power stations means that just a few failures—deliberate or otherwise—can have a devastating impact on power supplies.

Sabotage of the sort that may have sidelined Electrabel's Doel 4 reactor was a key part of the Lovins' analysis. Despite all of the attention paid to terrorist threats, insider threats remain the "most serious challenge confronting nuclear facilities" according to political scientists Scott Sagan at Stanford University and Matthew Bunn of Harvard. They made that case in an April 2014 article in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The U.K., meanwhile, is experiencing the same sort of "series defect" that started Belgium's troubles. In August EDF Energy, the U.K. subsidiary of Paris-based EDF, found a crack in a boiler during a routine inspection at a nuclear power plant near Lancaster. EDF immediately shut down three more reactors of the same design. With four reactors suddenly out of service, U.K. grid operator National Grid this month began seeking emergency power supplies for the winter.

Belgium's microcrack discovery could have had a far greater impact. The discovery sent reactor operators and regulators in several countries scrambling to see if their own vessels forged at the same Dutch shipyard—including 10 reactors examined in the United States—harbored hidden flaws. To date no microcracks have been found in reactors outside of Belgium.

But as one Belgian nuclear policy specialist has noted, none of the other reactors have been examined using the wider ultrasound testing performed in Belgium. And the hunt for trouble is widening. At least one regulator, the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, has ordered ultrasound testing of all vessels forged from steel rings, regardless of their source.

As for Doel 3 and Tihange 2, they remain closed until further testing and analysis by Electrabel can prove they are safe to restart. This will, according to FANC, include a review of Electrabel's "safety case" by foreign experts.

The overall result of the black-out campaign could be a 10-year life extension of the three oldest plants

All this talk of risk and vulnerability might make some people think twice about being dependent on nuclear energy. Ironically, in Belgium, it might have just the opposite effect according to Aviel Verbruggen, an economist and energy policy expert at the University of Antwerp.

Officially Belgium is approaching the first deadline for a nuclear phaseout legislated by Belgium's parliament in 2003, which would require the shutdown of the three oldest nuclear reactors in 2015 and the remaining four by 2025. But Verbruggen says there has been no coordinated policymaking to create alternative supplies, while the reactors' French owners—EDF and Electrabel parent company GDF Suez—have been preparing Belgium's reactors for continued operation.

Verbruggen says the present fear of power shortages may translate into public support for overriding the nuclear phaseout: "Because the strategic behavior of Suez and EDF is strong, and the Belgian political system is weak, the overall result of the black-out campaign could be a 10-year life extension of the three oldest plants. The majority of people will accept the life extension because they place supply reliability at the top of their preferences."

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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