The outcome of the current electoral process in Spain is still uncertain. If the conditions for forming a government are not met, new general elections will have to be held in a few months’ time. This situation suspends major political decisions, including those concerning the country’s energy future.

This is an opportunity for us to talk to you about this major player in nuclear energy in Europe, which was one of the first countries to turn to this source of energy. Its history and situation. The role that nuclear energy is set to play, and the hopes raised by the reopening of the public debate on the other side of the Pyrenees.

In this Voices Newsletter, part of our series on the countries of the European Union, Guillem Sanchez Ramirez describes the crossroads Spain is facing.

The current challenge for the Spanish democracy is to find the path that will enable it to ensure the success of its energy transition, and first and foremost to free itself from fossil gas, for the sake of the climate, its own population and that of Europe.

The Voices Team

Nuclear power in Spain

By Guillem Sanchis Ramirez

Guillem Sanchis Ramírez holds a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics, and Master’s degrees in Applied Mathematics and Nuclear Engineering. He currently works in the nuclear power sector in Spain. Recently, he co-founded Econucleares, a pro-nuclear environmentalist group in Spain with the main goal of preventing the planned shutdown of Spanish nuclear power plants through public demonstrations and outreach.

  • Spain has a population of just under 47.5 million, and has the world’s 15th economy by GDP, with 1.5 billion.
  • Nuclear power meets about 21% of Spain’s electricity consumption, which in 2022 was about 250 TWh.
  • Spain has a significant domestic nuclear industry, serving over 40 countries, including the fabrication of nuclear fuel.
  • On the other hand, Spain is among the states in Europe whose fossil fuel use depends the most on imports, with 98%, much higher than the EU´s average of 73%.

Perched on the southwestern edge of Europe, Spain has played a relevant role in European history for several centuries. Today, it finds itself, together with the world’s industrial nations, in the need to decarbonize large sectors of its economy in order to prevent the most severe consequences of climate change, and to do it while guaranteeing continued prosperity for its citizens. Nuclear power, with its minimal land and material requirements, its abundant and reliable production, and its tiny amount of waste produced (none of which of greenhouse effect), presents itself as a key tool to achieve this goal. At present, it contributes to over a fifth of Spain’s total electricity consumption. However, there are currently plans to close all of our nuclear power generation by the year 2035. Spain, then, faces a crucial decision that will influence its future, and Europe’s, for years to come. 

The history

José Cabrera Nuclear Power Plant (source: RTVE) 

The reader may be surprised to learn that Spain built and operated one of the very first nuclear power plants in Europe. Indeed, the José Cabrera Nuclear Power Station entered commercial operation just 15 years after the world’s first nuclear power plant, in 1969.

This impulse continued into the 1970s, with an ambitious nuclear buildout along the lines of France’s Messmer Plan. Over a dozen new reactors were being planned by the end of the decade (when Spain’s population was about 36 million), and a robust nuclear technology industry was being developed domestically, including nuclear fuel manufacturing.

Share of primary energy from nuclear power, by country 
1989 marked the last commissioning of a new nuclear power plant, and the highest percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power, at 38%.

However, by that point the nuclear industry was running into the same political headwinds that it faced in several other countries. The fear of nuclear weapons and accidents like the one at Three Mile Island were feeding the nascent anti-nuclear movement. In this context, the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) ran in the 1982 general election, only the second one since the end of the military dictatorship, with a moratorium on new nuclear builds in their program, and won by a landslide.

Less than two years later the moratorium was in place, and no new power plants would start construction. 1989 was the last year a new nuclear station started operating, and the year where we achieved the highest percentage of nuclear electricity generation, at 38%.

Share of nuclear-generated electricity by country 
Successive energy plans maintained the moratorium until 1997, and no new nuclear station has been built in Spain since, mirroring the trend in most of Europe and the West.

The present

It is the current government’s plan, according to the National Integrated Plan for Energy and Climate (Plan Nacional Integrado de Energía y Clima, PNIEC), to gradually phase out nuclear power in Spain [1]. This document, which reflects the intent of the Socialist administration to shut down all the reactors between 2027 and 2035, lays out a massive buildout of renewable energy sources instead, corresponding to deploying the current installed capacity several times over between the present and 2030, as well as a large amount of unspecified “storage” capacity to account for its variability [2].

The government argues that nuclear power is expensive, omitting its tax rate of over 60%. 

The administration argues that the plants are reaching their planned lifetime of 40 years [3]. However, the 40-year figure has never been the plants’ maximum lifetime; with appropriate maintenance and upgrades, several reactors worldwide are looking to operate safely up to 60 years and beyond [4]. The government also maintains that nuclear power is expensive and that utilities themselves are not currently considering new builds [5], while obviating factors like the huge tax burden under which Spanish nuclear power plants find themselves, with an aggregate burden of around 23 €/MWh, or an effective tax rate of over 60% [6]. 

Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant (credit: Foro Nuclear)

Finally, the government defends its energy roadmap with the argument that it will massively expand the deployment of renewable energy generation [7]. However, as has been shown over and over, when nuclear power stations are shut down, their baseload output is invariably replaced by fossil generation. We saw it in the state of New York, where natural gas usage surged after the closure of the state’s last nuclear power station at Indian Point [8].

We saw it, more recently, in Germany, which shut down its last three nuclear reactors just last April [9] as the culmination of the complete phaseout of nuclear power, even as it demolishes whole villages to mine enough lignite coal to power itself [10]. Simply put, closing nuclear power plants prematurely is bad for energy security, bad for a country’s economy, and bad for the climate.

The decision 
The clock is running: the first power plant to be shut down will be Almaraz in 2027 

While the governing Socialist Party has just submitted the new draft PNIEC to the EU for approval next year, the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) has made the retention of nuclear power a cornerstone of its campaign [11], highlighting the danger of removing 21% of Spain’s electricity production in such a short space of time and without a clear alternative. 

Indeed, if the current phaseout calendar is to be overturned, the clock is ticking: the first power station to be shut down under the current plan would be the Almaraz Nuclear Power Plant, in 2027; if that is to be avoided, administrative processes like license renewals and securing of fuel need to begin as early as next year [12]. Therefore, the next months will be crucial to decide one way or another. Our organization, Econucleares, will continue to bring the importance of this issue and the need for nuclear power to the Spanish public. 

Over the past two years, many countries have withdrawn their plans to phase out nuclear power. 
The next few months will therefore be crucial in deciding one way or the other. Our organization, Econucleares, will continue to make the Spanish public aware of the importance of this issue and the need for nuclear energy.
Spain finds itself, then, at a crossroads. We must decide whether to go down the road of states like Germany, denying ourselves the abundant, clean energy provided by nuclear power; or to correct course and maintain, and in time expand, our nuclear generation capacity. 
In the last two years, many nations have reversed plans for nuclear phaseouts as the realities of energy security and reliability have once again come to the forefront. For Spain to join them would be a clear signal to Europe and to the world of the need for nuclear power in the 21st century.

Références :

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