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Belgium: The real price for nuclear power not secret anymore

Thanks to the Wob on environmental information, a Belgian politician of Groen (the ecologist party 'Green'), Tinne van der Straeten, achieved a breakthrough about costs for nuclear power.

Though a national decision, the Belgian Wob – as numerous other wobs on access to information about the environment – is based upon an international Treaty and a European Directive, Thus the decision is of high interest outside of Belgium as well.

1:0 for wobbing and against secrecy about costs for nuclear waste in Belgium. Such is van der Straetens own description on her blog after she won the case at the highest responsible authority in Belgium, the Raad van State.

It was well-known already, that the nuclear waste management programme in Belgium did cost extra, van der Straeten explains on her blog. However it was not possible to get more details on the figures. Van der Straeten thus requested the Belgian Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials (NIRAS) for access to their regular report issued every fifth year.

NIRAS rejected the request, arguing with national security and referring to the confidential character of the economic and industrial information. It also argued that it was practically impossible to give partial access, as blacking out the confidential data would make that the report was not understandable.
In application of the Belgian law the Federal Commission on access to environmental information intervened on behalf of Tinne van der Straeten, before the case went to the highest responsible authority, the Administrative Court (Raad van State/Conseil d’Etat). The judgment delivered by the Raad van State on April 14th, 2009, confirmed the decision of the Federal Commission to give access to the requested report, except information containing details regarding the exact place and forms of the presence of nuclear material.

The Raad van State rejected the request by NIRAS to suspend the decision of the Federal Commission essentially on the following arguments:

3.3.1 – The exceptions on the basic right to access to information have to be interpreted restrictively.

3.3.2 – The Agency for Radioactive Waste in its refusal to grant access refers to confidential commercial or industrial information. The Federal Commission did not accept this as a relevant and sufficient motivation to refuse access to the requested documents, as this kind of economic and financial information has to be made public according to other legislation anyway.

The Commission, in arguing that other laws and regulations oblige the authority to make this kind of economic and financial information public has not failed in its obligation to motivate its decision by not referring in extenso to what legislation is actually obliging the authority to make economic and financial information public. The Commission is not under an obligation to give the motivation of its motivation and neither had to indicate which information precisely was meant.

3.3.3 – Furthermore even if in this case the economic information is confidential, this interest of confidentiality has to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure according to the European directive on access to environmental information (EC 2003/4). The economic interest is a restrictively to be interpreted exception on access to public documents and the Commission at first sight could indeed reasonably consider the requested economic and financial information having no confidential character.

3.3.4 – The Agency for Radioactive Waste claims that publication of the requested information would have a negative impact on the fulfilling of its task, however this can not be accepted as a motivation to refuse access. The mere assumption that the publication could have a negative impact on the functioning of the Agency does not constitute an exemption according to the law.

The Administrative Court hence confirmed the legal and justified character of the arguments developed by the Federal Commission on public access to environmental information ordering NIRAS to make the requested information public. As a consequence, NIRAS had to grant access.

Tinne van der Straeten confirms that she got the full report, apart from very few parts blacked out with details of places and forms where nuclear waste is stocked.

Brigitte Alfter & Dirk Voorhoof 


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