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Tonight around 9 pm the plug will be pulled at Doel 3. That is of course a bit disrespectful, because shutting down a nuclear reactor involves a lot of work.
According to Peter Moens, director of the nuclear power plant, there are still seventeen to nineteen years of work in Doel 3. That work starts with a shutdown phase, which lasts five years. The 157 fuel elements – the fuel for the reactor – are lifted out of the reactor and cooled in cooling docks. That takes three to five years. The nuclear fuel is then sent to special containers and then to final underground storage. The power station itself is simultaneously decontaminated from radioactive particles.
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It is important to note that the reactor will not yet become unusable from a technical point of view in these years. That will only come during the decommissioning phase, and there is currently no permit for this. This phase lasts no less than ten to twelve years and is followed by the demolition of the site, which will take another two years. The whole process costs about a billion euros.
“We are facing a sad day,” says Etienne Schelstraete. The 60-year-old ACV representative has been working for Engie in Doel for nineteen years and was previously active in the nuclear power plant, employed by a subcontractor. “This afternoon we will pay a tribute to Doel 3. Next Friday there will be a more solemn tribute, with films and a book about the reactor’s forty-year history.”
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Guaranteed work until retirement
According to the trade unionist, not too much has changed for the staff yet. “As long as there is nuclear fuel, there is work. That nuclear fuel is then not in a reactor, but in the docks. In any case, it must be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for five years.”
Recently, however, a number of people who worked in shifts at Doel 3 have been transferred to Doel 4. “They fill gaps in the duty roster, for example of people who are retiring.”
It is difficult to say how many employees work specifically for Doel 3. “There are very few services that only work for one reactor,” says Schelstraete. “That is the case for employees who work in shifts. We have about 350 of them, a third of them are at Doel 3. So more than a hundred people.”
But right now, no one should leave. What’s more, Engie does everything it can to keep the coveted technical profiles on board. “At the end of last year, it was already decided that people aged 45 or older can be guaranteed to remain on board until their retirement,” says Schelstraete. “There is also a guarantee for younger people that they can work in Doel for as long as possible. When this is no longer possible, a transfer within Engie-Electrabel will be considered. And if that is no longer possible, we will look elsewhere in the sector. Engie has signed a statement guaranteeing employment until retirement, which is quite unique.”
Before there was talk of an extension of Doel 4, Engie had already set a premium for people who stayed until June 30, 2026 and then had to leave. “They would then receive a premium worth a gross annual wage,” says Schelstraete. “That measure is temporarily on hold, until there is clarity about Doel 4. There are, however, other financial ‘retention measures’.”
For the staff in Doel, these have been uncertain times for a long time, with not only negotiations about the extension of Doel 4, but recently also political discussions about reopening Doel 3 at the last minute. hope for a new life for the reactor? “I don’t dare to rule out anything anymore”, sighs Schelstraete. “At the end of 2014 we already rotated our tanker by extending Doel 1 and 2. That seemed impossible at the time. The extension of Doel 4 was also impossible until a few months ago, according to Engie and politicians. As staff we sit on a roller coaster with loops and screws, where at the end they build a whole lot more. Everything has now become possible for me.”