UPDATE 1-Safety inspection halts Belgian nuclear reactor

Thu Aug 9, 2012 7:04am EDT

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* Doel 3 reactor to remain shut until end of August at least

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* Shares of GDF Suez fall as much as 2.6 pct on Thursday (Adds government, analyst comments)

By Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS, Aug 9 (Reuters) - An investigation into possible cracks in the core tank of a Belgian nuclear power plant will close one of its reactors until the end of August at least, Belgian regulator FANC said, casting doubt over the government's plan to keep it open until 2022.

The 1,006 megawatt Doel 3 reactor, operated by GDF Suez unit Electrabel, is scheduled to close in 10 years' time, according to a nuclear exit plan the Belgian government adopted in July.

"FANC will only give a permit for further operation if convincing arguments can be made. The aim is to guarantee safety," the agency said in a statement.

The government awaits the outcome of the inspection and has not yet made contingency plans should the reactor, one of four at the plant, remain shut, a spokeswoman for Belgium's state secretary in charge of energy said.

"In case the regulator tells us that the reactor cannot be restarted, we will adapt the plan we proposed in July, but for the moment there is no plan B," the spokeswoman said.

Shares of GDF Suez lost as much as 2.6 percent on Thursday, making it the weakest performer on the STOXX 600 European Utilities Index.

Its unit Electrabel made no comment.

The regulator said the 1,008 MW Tihange 2 reactor in the south of the country would also be closed for inspection in September. Inspections are scheduled at the country's other reactors in 2013.

GDF Suez is expected to trim significantly its 47-year old nuclear business now that Belgium, the only nation where it operates nuclear plants, is phasing out its reliance on atomic power.

Belgium has long considered a complete exit, but that will depend on its having enough alternative sources of energy in place.

"In terms of alternatives, if the Belgian government decides to phase out nuclear power eventually, then the only alternatives are imports of electricity or gas and coal. Belgium is not the worst in terms of supply. They are well connected to the European grid," said Serge Gas, head of communication at the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency.

EU member states are responsible for determining policy to nuclear power and the energy mix in general, but the European Commission has initiated a series of stress tests as part of efforts to ensure safety following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster.

They were meant to be completed before the Commission's August summer break, but European states have been given extra time for further assessments. (Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis; editing by Mark Potter and Jane Baird)

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