About 60% of electricity in Belgium is generated by nuclear power plants. A quarter of spent fuel is currently sent to Cogema's plant at La Hague under a contract signed in the late 1970s, but this expires in 2000.
The government's decision affects a second contract, which was signed in 1991 but suspended for five years in 1993, pending an in-depth examination of spent fuel management options. A conclusion to this process has now been postponed for another year, and the government has cancelled the contract rather than extend the suspension. By cancelling before 23 December it has avoided having to pay penalties to Cogema, according to a spokesperson for the Belgian defence ministry, which also manages energy issues.
Cancellation of the contract was "not a surprise," according to Synatom manager Pierre Goldschmidt, and "not a big story". According to the company, national policy on managing spent fuel after 2000 will now be decided at the end of next year instead of this one, and the reprocessing option remains alive.
However, the company's comments were not fully supported by the Belgian defence ministry. A spokesperson confirmed that no decision had been made about what to do in the future, but described the decision as a "signal of the way we are going to go".
Greenpeace, meanwhile, is convinced that the decision does mark an effective end for the reprocessing of Belgian nuclear fuel. According to the group, the decision is even more significant for Cogema than the growing possibility that the new German government will seek to cancel post-2000 nuclear reprocessing.
On the basis of contracts already signed, Belgium was Cogema's single largest foreign customer for the period after 2000, Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International told ENDS Daily. The group calculates that, taken together with a probable German pull-out, the Belgian move will mean that the plant at La Hague specifically built to reprocess foreign fuel could be operating at half capacity or even less from 2000.
"That's a strong political signal" to both Cogema and the UK reprocessor British Nuclear Fuels, Mr Burnie said.
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