Amid a Europe-wide debate over the future of nuclear power in a renewable energy future, Spain has rolled out a schedule to close its seven nuclear power plants. This move comes as the government proposes an ambitious clean energy plan to shift away from fossil fuels completely by 2050.
Spain’s main electricity providers have reached a deal to close the Almaraz nuclear power plant in western Spain, in line with the Spanish government’s plans to shut down all seven of the country’s nuclear plants by 2035. Almaraz, the country’s oldest nuclear plant, is jointly owned by Iberdrola, Endesa, and Naturgy, who last week agreed to invest a combined 400 million euros – and up to 600 million if necessary – to operate the plant until its two reactors are closed in 2027 and 2028. The plan also guaranteed employment at the plant for the next 20 to 25 years, through the end of operations, and the long process of safely shutting down and decommissioning the facility.
The deal to close the Almaraz plan is paving the way for further negotiations about the closure of Spain’s other nuclear plants. For example, Iberdrola and Endesa, who together own the Vandellos II nuclear plant in Catalonia, have applied to the Ecological Transition Ministry for a ten-year extension of the plant’s operations, a prerequisite to reaching an agreement to finance the plant until it is closed.
Nuclear power currently provides close to 20% of the country’s electricity, but the Spanish government hopes to shift away from this energy source by 2035. Next slated to close, in 2029, is Endesa’s Asco I reactor in Tarragona, followed by Iberdrola’s Cofrentes reactor in Valencia the next year. Asco II and Vandellos plants, jointly owned by these two companies, will respectively close in 2033 and 2034. Last to close in 2035 will be the Trillo plant, where Endesa, Iberdrola, and Naturgy all own shares.
Europe’s debate over nuclear energy
Nuclear plants produce over a quarter of the European Union’s electricity, and are one of the cheapest ways to produce low-carbon power. Some see nuclear power as an integral part of a clean energy strategy, as long as safety precautions are in place. 14 EU states produce nuclear power; in France, Belgium, Slovakia, and Hungary, nuclear energy makes up the majority of electricity production. Italy, in contrast, phased out its nuclear plants in 1990, while Portugal and Greece opted out of this power source. Safety and environmental concerns, reinforced by meltdowns such as Chornobyl in 1986, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster, have convinced many Europeans that nuclear power’s risks outweigh its benefits.
Nuclear energy does not fit neatly into either side of the energy debate. In Belgium, for instance, nuclear power is being phased out to mitigate safety risks and environmental hazards – only to be replaced by gas-fired plants. France, on the other hand, continues to build more nuclear plants to decrease fossil fuel consumption. Each EU member state decides its own nuclear policy, leading to international tensions over national policy. For example, nuclear-free Luxembourg plans to vote to allow its citizens to sue Belgian nuclear producers, in the event of a cross-border accident. Spain plans to dump the nuclear waste from the Almaraz plant at a site 100 km from the Portuguese border, near the Tegus River that flows through Lisbon. The Portuguese government has registered complaints with the EU, alleging that Spain did not take into account the cross-border impact when approving the plan. Aside from “stress tests” assessing the safety of plants across Europe, the EU has not spelled out clear directives on nuclear power, and so the debate among member states will continue.
Spain shifts away from fossil fuels
The scheduled nuclear power shutdown is part of the governing Socialist Party’s ambitious clean energy proposal ahead of snap elections, on April 28 of this year. The plan meets EU climate targets, including a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by the end of 2030, and a long-term shift to a climate-neutral economy by 2050.
The government plans to solicit competitive tenders in solar and wind energy, to increase Spain’s renewable capacity by 3000 megawatts per year. Spain underwent a wind and solar boom in 2004, but it abruptly stopped when the government cancelled a generous subsidy program due to austerity measures, imposed as a consequence of the financial crisis. This time, renewable energy, and especially solar power, can compete in Spain without subsidies, stoking hopes of substantial private investment to supplement government spending.
The climate plan is facing opposition from those who prefer a slower transition away from fossil fuels. The government, however, has taken steps to pre-empt opposition from workers who face dislocation and job loss from the proposed rapid changes in the Spanish economy. The government struck a deal with coal companies and labour unions, to shut down nearly all the country’s coal mines at the end of 2018. Furthermore, the government set aside a 250 million euro “fair transition package” to fund retraining programs, and early retirements, for coal miners put out of work, and has pledged to create similar packages moving forward, to ensure that laid-off workers can find jobs in the renewable sector – in a bid to make the transition to a green economy smoother.
Jose Ignacio Galan, the chief executive of Iberdrola, pointed out to the Financial Times, that Spain will need over 100 billion euros of investment to reach its ambitious energy goals, but he is optimistic about the government’s plan. “Fighting climate change is a global task that has to be handled urgently,” he said. “The EU has been leading this effort for decades. Now Spain is playing its part.”