While more world attention has been focused on the ambitious or controversial nuclear programs of other countries such as Sweden, France, or the United States , Belgium has quietly forged ahead to a top ranking in the use of nuclear energy.
At the moment, 25 percent of the country's electricity is produced by atomic power. That puts it well ahead of all other industrialized nations. If its current 1978-88 development plan is adhered to, by 1988 the country will be getting 53 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, a rate surpassed only by Switzerland's own projections.
This emphasis on nuclear energy is the country's answer to the little-realized fact that Belgians are among the world's largest users of energy. They consume more per capita than the West Germans, French, and British and only slightly less than Americans. This already high rate of consumption also is predicted to double by the year 2000.
The nuclear program is part of a planned diversification of the country's energy supplies into other types of ventures and relationships in the coming years.
Currently, imported oil provides 53 percent of Belgium's needs. Saudi Arabia supplies 56 percent of these imports. The country is limited by international agreements to importing 30 million tons of oil in 1980.
Belgium's aim is to reduce its dependence on outside oil to 50 percent in the medium term. The gap to be filled by nuclear power, which at present accounts for 6 to 7 percent of total Belgian energy requirements, will have to be raised to 16 percent by 1985.
belgium has never had a full-fledged debate about the nuclear option. The issue, however, has prompted considerable controversy and some problems. For instance, there is strong opposition in the area near the country's Tihange nuclear complex. Local authorities there have levied a special tax on producing electricity. After the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania last year they ordered the nuclear plant shut down. This plant has alos had security problems. Recently it was occupied by striking workers. Security problems have also occurred at the plant at Doel, near Antwerp, and the waste-reprocessing facility at Mol.
Teh stress on nuclear energy has also been accompanied by government conservation drives and efforts to secure oil and gas supplies for the future to cope with what Economics Minister Willy Claes calls "an end to the golden '60s," when energy was cheap.
Gasoline taxes were raised. Fuel deliveries to households and businesses were limited to 80 to 90 percent of 1978 shipments, but no stringent control has been exercised on the latter aspect of the plan.
In the meantime, the government has sought to ensure a supply of oil and natural gas through contracts on the international market. Mr. Claes, a Socialist, triggered off some concern in the petroleum industry last year when he announced that the government was considering buying energy products directly to ensure supplies.
He has since sought to reassure the industry that the government was not seeking to create a parallel market. Through its 50 percent interest in a gas supplier, however, it has negotiated a number of long-term supply contracts. One, with Saudi Arabia, was for deliveries of 5 million tons of petroleum a year for the next three years at $26 a barrel.
Also, to guard against the possibility of a price increase in natural gas from its main supplier, the Netherlands, the same mixed government-and-private firm has negotiated contracts with Algeria and Nigeria. The country also receives natural gas from the North Sea.
In the meantime, the nation's once-sizable coal mining industry has dwindled steadily in recent years. In 1979 production dropped 7.1 percent from the preceding year and imports jumped by 37.1 percent. West Germany was by far the largest supplier of coal, but deliveries from the United States and South Africa also jumped significantly in 1979. The country filled 61.1 percent of its coal need through imports in 1979, compared with 49.8 percent in 1978.