By Felicia Spersaud and Curt Cultice U.S. Commercial Service, U.S. Department of Commerce
Although a relatively small European country, Belgium is a significant U.S. trading partner, with more than $65 billion in total bilateral goods and services traded between our countries in 2015. The U.S. ranks as Belgium’s 5th largest trading partner – the largest outside the EU – and Belgium is the 10th largest recipient of U.S. goods exports. This is due in part to the fact that Belgium imports are distributed throughout Europe as the country hosts the second largest port in Europe, Antwerp. This is significant for a country that is about the same size as Maryland. As home to EU institutions and hundreds of multinational corporations, Belgium is often referred to as the capital of Europe, and is a compact and diverse market. In the following Q&A, Stephane Croigny, Commercial Advisor with the U.S. Commercial Service at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, Belgium, discusses opportunities for U.S. exporters in Belgium’s civil nuclear sector. Mr. Croigny is part of the U.S. Commercial Service’s global network of offices across the United States and in U.S. Embassies and Consulates in more than 75 markets.
Q: Can you give readers some background on the Belgian nuclear sector?
Croigny: Belgium’s nuclear industry has a long-standing history with the United States dating back to World War II. Collaboration between Belgium and the United States has always been very strong as Belgium was involved in the early stages of the Manhattan project. As a consequence of this work, Belgium’s first prototype reactor was commissioned in 1956.
The country currently counts two nuclear power plants: the Doel plant with four reactors and the Tihange plant with three reactors. Belgium also has a well-known federal nuclear research center called the Studiecentrum voor Kernenergie – Centre d’Étude de l’énergie Nucléaire (SCK-CEN), which operates two research reactors. The center is very active in nuclear waste disposal, studying the impact of radiation in space exploration, and the doping of Silicon being used in renewable energy systems. Approximately 55 percent of the electricity generated in Belgium comes from nuclear energy. Belgian’s seven reactors have a total capacity of 6,000 MW and all are designed by U.S. reactor vendor, Westinghouse. While Belgium has a long-term plan to decommission its nuclear reactors, numerous opportunities exist for U.S. companies to support the existing fleet and to participate in the country’s decommissioning plans.
Q: should U.S. civil nuclear companies consider doing business in Belgium?
Croigny: Generally speaking, the country’s central location in one of the wealthiest regions of Europe provides an ideal gateway for selling to the EU. If located in Belgium, U.S. companies can reach 60 percent of Europe’s purchasing power in less than 24 hours by road. This is an important advantage.
Second, Belgium’s diversity makes it an excellent test market. The country contains a few distinctly separate socio-demographic groups, such as the Germanic Flemings and the Latin Walloons, who speak French. Although they are separate demographic groups, they are governed by the same legal system. Because of this diversity, the Belgian economy reflects the overall European economy and consumer base like a mini-Europe. It is easier to enter the market in Belgium than to start with larger European markets. In a nutshell, if you succeed in Belgium, you are likely to succeed anywhere in Europe.
More specific to the U.S. civil nuclear industry, Belgium’s Westinghouse-designed fleet of reactors is supported by dozens of companies in the U.S. civil nuclear supply chain, so U.S. firms have a history of successfully exporting to Belgium’s civil nuclear market, and there is room for additional U.S. companies to enter the market.
Q: Could you provide some background on Belgium’s legislation for decommissioning its nuclear reactors?
Croigny: The Belgian federal government passed a law in 2003 barring the construction of any new nuclear plants in Belgium and establishing a limit of 40 years for the operating lives of existing reactors. The law was revised in 2014, allowing an additional ten years of operation for the three oldest reactors. The revised law does not provide guidance for the remaining four reactors, but it is expected that their life will also be extended for an additional ten years once they have reached the end of their 40-year period. This means that, under the current law, the two oldest reactors will be decommissioned in 2025, with the remaining ones gradually phasing out by 2035. Therefore, significant opportunities for U.S. companies able to support decommissioning activities and lifetime extension will arise in the future.
Q: How significant are the decommissioning opportunities in Belgium for U.S. firms?
Croigny: Well, in terms of decommissioning, any U.S. company that has experience or can offer innovative processes in terms of decommissioning nuclear plants is encouraged to consider the Belgian market. This is going to be a great business opportunity for U.S. companies in the upcoming years as plants across Europe are gradually decommissioned. Until the sector is completely phased out, utilities will continue to invest in and upgrade their plants. Electrabel, the largest Belgium utility, has announced investments in equipment upgrades worth $700 million over a period of 10 years for three reactors. Since liberalization of the energy market in 1999, three different utilities – Electrabel, EDF Belgium and EDF Luminus – have operated Belgium’s seven nuclear reactors.
My advice would be for U.S. companies to partner with local companies. One local company that is active in decommissioning is Tractebel, a Belgian engineering company that has built some of the nuclear power plants with Westinghouse and was also active in building the SCK-CEN research center. The companies who were originally active in building and designing the power plants would logically be active in decommissioning the same plants. The U.S. Commercial Service in Belgium can help U.S. companies identify potential local partners.
Q: Is there any demand in Belgium for new civil nuclear technology?
Croigny: There are no new builds planned for now, but given that the phasing out law has been amended, demand for new technologies is possible. I believe there may be interest in smaller and more flexible technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), and Belgium is very much involved in fusion technologies with the http://www.iter.org/“>ITER project. Interest in Gen III+ or Gen IV advanced reactors is lower though. If the phasing law is not further amended or is cancelled, the future of Belgium will be one without nuclear technology, at least for energy production. There will always be a strong focus on nuclear medicine and R&D in general. U.S. companies can definitely play an active role in those fields in the future.
Q: Can you expound on radioisotopes and nuclear medicine opportunities?
Croigny: There are only about four or five reactors worldwide that are capable of producing radioisotopes. Radioisotopes are used in nuclear medicine to track and trace cancerous tumors. Belgium, with its small but very powerful Belgian Reactor number two, has the capability to produce these high quality radioisotopes quickly. The demand for radioisotopes has significantly increased over the last several years because nuclear medicine is developing very rapidly. Belgium has the capacity to produce up to 60 percent of global demand for radioisotopes, which is significant. Belgium has really developed a strong expertise in that field.
The second point concerning nuclear medicine is treatment. What I’ve explained before about the production of radioisotopes concerns the detection of cancers. The technology is evolving very quickly toward treatment. There’s actually one well-known company in Belgium called Ion Beam Applications (IBA) that does proton therapy, a relatively new technology that treats cancers using protons. The nuclear industry is closely linked to nuclear medicine through proton therapy. The Belgian Research Center is open to working with U.S. companies in developing those technologies. So there are opportunities for partnerships either at the Belgium Department of Energy level, with private U.S. companies looking for R&D opportunities, or in the nuclear medical field.
Q: Would new technologies be welcomed from a U.S. company?
Croigny: U.S. companies such as NuScale, Holtec, Terrapower, Westinghouse, and BWX Technologies all have excellent technologies linked to SMRs, and GE-Hitachi, with its PRISM reactor technology, also has a lot to offer. However, given that there is a progressive phasing out of Belgium’s civil nuclear program, and the recent decision to extend the life by 10 years of the two oldest reactors, we expect significant opportunities for providing maintenance equipment and upgrading equipment.
There are also opportunities for emergency power generators, emergency power storage, batteries, and anti-flooding equipment such as automatic gates and doors, waterproof electrical systems, surveillance systems, and access control systems. The demand for safety and security equipment was mainly in response to the March 2011 Fukushima incident. Post Fukushima, the European Commission now requires additional safety measures that were implemented by the Belgian government. Currently, most of Belgium’s plants have realized these investments in safety and security equipment so there may be fewer opportunities, but investments and upgrading will continue.
Q: How about supply chain opportunities for U.S. civil nuclear firms?
Croigny: There are opportunities in the supply of critical and non-critical components. There is also demand for general industrial energy related equipment, maintenance, and safety and security equipment, but competition is strong from local suppliers.
Q: Do U.S. firms have any competitive advantages vs. foreign competition in Belgium’s market?
Croigny: In the nuclear sector, U.S. firms’ competitive advantages focus mainly on strong expertise and advanced technology and after-market service and training. However, European and other international competitors often have advantages when it comes to financing large projects. In the area of financing, U.S. firms are supported by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which provides direct loans and loan guarantees to support U.S. civil nuclear exports.
Q: Would you say that establishing business in Belgium is a good avenue to civil nuclear opportunities in other EU countries?
Croigny: Establishing a business in Belgium or having a company representative or an office in Brussels is definitely the way to go. It would provide the opportunity to reach out to all the major markets in Europe and also stay connected with what is going on at the level of the EU institutions. Brussels is where decisions are taken in Europe, and this is where U.S. companies certainly need to be.
Q: If opportunities were to arise for a U.S. company to supply civil nuclear goods and services, are there any regulations or criteria that need to be followed?
Croigny: Companies would need to go through a certification process with the Belgian Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FANC. The FANC has specific guidelines that need to be followed by companies who wish to be active in this sector. In addition, U.S. companies should consult with the appropriate U.S. government agencies that are responsible for export controls that impact civil nuclear products and services. These include the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S Department of Commerce.
Q: Could you give some examples of how UCS Belgium works with U.S. nuclear suppliers, and any tips for U.S. firms looking to do business?
Croigny: My best advice to any U.S. civil nuclear company that is interested in doing business in Belgium is to first and foremost contact the U.S. Commercial Service at the U.S. Embassy in Belgium. The nuclear market structure in Belgium is complex, there are few players and everyone knows each other, so it’s key to speak to the right people and have the appropriate introductions. The U.S. Commercial Service has the right connections to do that and that’s the best way to get started.
My biggest tip is to know who you should speak to and start discussions in the very early stages of a project. The U.S. Commercial Service in Belgium assists U.S. companies in finding the most appropriate partner, whether for a specific project, or a longer-term strategy. A mistake U.S. companies should avoid is approaching the market with limited information. To get started, visit the U.S. Commercial Service in Belgium or your nearest U.S. Commercial Service office in the United States. Businesses are also encouraged to visit our Country Commercial Guides. In addition, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Energy and Environmental Industries (OEEI) provides expertise on nuclear-related energy issues for different global markets. OEEI’s annual Civil Nuclear Top Markets Report discusses key trends, areas of opportunity, and important challenges facing U.S. civil nuclear energy exports through 2028. The Report is available at http://trade.gov/topmarkets/pdf/Civil_Nuclear_Top_Markets_Report.pdf.More Nuclear Power Internaional Issue Articles
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