The lobby of Etschenberg's office is currently hosting an art exhibit with several apocalyptic landscapes and an advertising pillar covered with postcard-sized images of Chernobyl, radiation victims and children suffering from hydrocephalus and swollen feet, both of which can be caused by radiation. There are also images of animals with stunted extremities. A poster hangs next to the pillar showing a fictitious text message: "Darling, it has happened: Tihange has melted down. Here in Aachen, it is chaos, sirens everywhere, the networks are collapsing ... I am so afraid!"
With his gray hair carefully combed back, his dark-blue, plaid suit and white shirt with cufflinks, Etschenberg doesn't exactly look like an anti-nuclear power activist. A member of the center-right Christian Democrats, Etschenberg has been head of the regional council since 2009 and his critics accuse him of sowing panic when it comes to the Tihange issue. But Etschenberg merely folds his arms casually on the conference table in his office and shakes his head. "This isn't about panic mongering," he says. "It's about people's real concerns. We would all be affected in an emergency." He says he isn't a blanket opponent of nuclear power, but that he believes the Belgian government is being irresponsible when it comes to Tihange. "They are gambling with human lives and doing so for one reason only: economic interests."
Back in 2003, Belgium agreed to work toward a phase-out of nuclear power, but the amount of electricity generated by alternative sources is allegedly still insufficient. Indeed, the Tihange and Doel power plants still cover 50 percent of the country's electricity needs and Etschenberg estimates that the Tihange 2 reactor alone generates close to a million euros in profits per day. "It's money that the Belgian state does not want to do without," Etschenberg says. "That's the only possible explanation for the fact that the reactor is still in operation."
Etschenberg believes the decision to keep Tihange 2 online has been influenced by a powerful atomic energy lobby. He mentions a man who has become extremely controversial on both sides of the border: Jan Bens. Until the end of April, he was head of the Belgian nuclear power agency FANC and consistently insisted that the cracks were innocuous and the reactor safe. Like most Tihange opponents, Etschenberg harbors serious doubts about the ex-FARC head's ability to arrive at an independent assessment of the reactor's safety. After all, Bens spent almost his entire career, from 1978 to 2007, working for Tihange operator Electrabel. He then became deputy director of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) before joining FANC in 2013. Since then, he has been responsible for monitoring the work of his former employer. He is also no stranger to corruption, as he admitted in a 2015 interview with the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir. When he was working for Electrabel on a project in Kazakhstan, Bens told the French-language paper, he was offered bribe money in envelopes and "I offered others bribes as well. In Kazakhstan, everything is done with cash."
A Reactor with Numerous Defects
In 2016, Etschenberg asked FANC to send him a copy of the official document, complete with the signature of the Belgian king, which authorized the restarting of the reactor in 2015. "They continue to withhold the document from us to this day," Etschenberg says in a rage. "We suspect that it doesn't exist."
Now, the courts might force the nuclear facility to close. In 2016, Etschenberg's regional council filed two legal complaints in Belgium, a case that is now supported by 130 municipalities from Gelsenkirchen in Germany to Luxembourg. The first oral arguments are to be heard by a Belgian court this fall. The plant operator, however, is unfazed. Reached for comment, an Electrabel spokeswoman said the company is aware of the anti-Tihange activists' fears but doesn't quite understand where they are coming from. After all, the spokeswoman said, the plants are submitted to 50 independent audits each year. "Plant safety and that of our 2,000 employees has the highest priority."
Numerous nuclear power experts have a different view. In mid-April, a number of prominent representatives from the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group, invited to Aachen by the regional council, demanded that Tihange 2 be shut down. In several presentations, the experts analyzed the cracks in the reactor pressure vessel, described in detail what the consequences of a meltdown would be and, using meteorological data, documented the possible effects of nuclear fallout on the border region.
And that's not all. They also accused the plant operators of having manipulated important documents to ensure that the reactor could begin operations. "We are now certain that the cracks were identified during the construction of the reactor. They are mentioned in the initial construction logs, but in the later documentation compiled for authorization, they have suddenly disappeared," says the physicist Wolfgang Renneberg, who, until 2009, was head of the German Environment Ministry department tasked with nuclear safety and nuclear waste disposal. Today, he works as a consultant for the Aachen region. "There is only one explanation: Either the applicant misled the officials, or the officials went along with it. A reactor with so many defects would otherwise not be approved by any controlling agency in the world."
Renneberg accuses FANC of playing down the problem. "I have been dealing with nuclear facilities for quite some time, but this is the worst case I have ever encountered. This reactor must be taken offline immediately."