In a country that has long eschewed atomic power, young physicists and their allies are hoping that fresh political upheaval will offer a chance to change minds.
After nearly five hours in a stuffy, cream-walled classroom on the second floor of a college physics department last Tuesday night, Luis Guimarãis stood up and broached the metaphysical: Can something die that was never born?
The audience of nearly two dozen students had been sitting in the fluorescent-lit room, which featured a tragically inactive espresso machine, since the middle of the afternoon. The sky had gone dark hours earlier, and most of the University of Lisbon’s students had dispersed to neighborhood bars. But the youths and professors staring at a projector screen at the front of the room listened intently to a lineup of speakers attempting to recruit them to what has seemed, for decades, like an impossible cause in this nation: building a nuclear reactor.
Just a few years ago, Portugal’s newspaper of record had declared that “nuclear is dead and buried.” But in a country gripped by fresh political chaos, Guimarãis and those like him now see an opportunity to revive a dream of harnessing the awesome power of split atoms to set Portugal on a new path.
“The anti-nuclear bubble is bursting,” Guimarãis said later in the week, during a walk along Lisbon’s leafy coastal promenade.
Guimarãis, 43, is the soft-spoken son of a winemaker. He spent 15 years as a nuclear fusion researcher before taking a job in data analytics at a telecom here in the capital. In his spare time ― he’s also the father of a 1-year-old ― he founded the Portuguese chapter of RePlanet, a European environmental nonprofit that advocates for nuclear energy and technological solutions to ecological problems. He was one of eight speakers of various backgrounds invited to speak at the University of Lisbon event, organized by interested physics students. “Now is the time to seize the moment and make Portugal ready for the challenges of the future,” he said.
Exactly one week earlier, the left-wing government that had ruled Portugal for nearly eight years abruptly collapsed amid an investigation into a series of allegedly corrupt energy deals, including schemes to mine lithium, build a solar-powered data center, and generate hydrogen fuel to power the future. The ongoing probe has accused some of the Socialist government’s highest-ranking ministers of making backroom deals to favor foreign energy companies for projects related to the administration’s climate goals.
Despite not being implicated directly, long-serving Prime Minister António Costa resigned on Nov. 7, sowing chaos in what was widely viewed as one of Europe’s last stable bastions of progressive politics and seeding doubt about the future of Portugal’s current plans to transition its energy systems to renewables like wind and solar.
While fossil fuels provide just 25% of the country’s electricity (in the U.S., it’s over 60%), the hydroelectric dams that generate another 20% are struggling to maintain output as droughts shrink reservoirs. Despite suffering its driest climate in 1,200 years, Portugal is constructing a new megadam.
In the meantime, wind turbines and solar panels have helped make up the difference, but building enough to rely entirely on renewables will take up huge areas of land at a time when the offshore projects expected to do the bulk of the work are facing growing pushback. And as Portugal relies more on weather-dependent sources that stop producing power when the sky is dark or the air is still, the country is forecast to turn more to imported natural gas, for which demand is rising.
But even with all those sources, many people can’t afford their utility bills. Portugal has the worst energy poverty in Western Europe, with 1 in 5 people saying in a 2018 survey that they cannot cover the cost of heating their homes, a rate nearly three times higher than the European Union average. That official EU survey took place even before inflation and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices skyrocketing in Europe.
Now, the energy scandal has made people suspicious of the dominant narrative that renewables are the only pathway to decarbonization, said Bruno Soares Gonçalves, the head of the nuclear fusion research unit at the University of Lisbon’s Instituto Superior Técnico, where Tuesday’s gathering took place.
“Nuclear is something that we don’t discuss in Portugal, but the energy transition could turn into one of the central points of the next election,” he said after the event. “Companies want to know more. Young people want to know more and want to promote nuclear. These are all positive signs that we should at least discuss nuclear.”
Following Costa’s resignation, Portugal set a new election for March 10. Both the ruling Socialist Party and their main rivals, the center-right Social Democrats, oppose nuclear power, which has never been built in this country despite various attempts over the past 69 years. But among the smaller parties that polls suggest could gain seats in the next parliament, at least two do support atomic energy.
As Germany struggles in the wake of its controversial decision to shut its nuclear reactors down, and growing conflicts in the Middle East amplify the Ukraine war’s effect on energy prices, Guimarãis sees an opening to change this country’s mind.
“As we’ve seen in New York and Germany, nuclear is either replaced by fossil fuels or deindustrialization,” he said, referring to how New York City faced significantly worse blackout risks and higher electricity rates after shutting down its Indian Point nuclear plant in 2021 and replacing the output almost entirely with fossil fuels.
The last time anyone took a national survey on nuclear energy in Portugal was March 2006, when nearly 52% of those polled expressed support for building reactors, with less than 34% against. It’s difficult to determine just one reason why nuclear energy remained stigmatized.
The only serious attempt at building a nuclear power plant in Portugal had come in 1971, at the end of its fascist dictatorship — and then unraveled shortly after the so-called Carnation Revolution that extended democracy to Europe’s Atlantic coast. Along with Spain, where the totalitarian Franco regime had all but finished building its fleet of nuclear reactors before completing its transition to democracy by the start of the 1980s, the Iberian peninsula’s recent experience with right-wing tyranny had rendered both countries’ populations particularly prone to supporting left-wing politics. And left-wing politics across Europe, from the United Kingdom to France, tended to oppose nuclear energy, which environmentalists depicted as a pollution threat and which anti-war activists cast as the other side of the atomic weapons coin.
Of course, it wasn’t just a simple left-right issue. For example, the dictatorship’s purges of intellectuals with leftist sympathies stifled the careers of two pioneering native nuclear scientists ― Branca Edmée Marques and Manuel Valaderes, who had studied under the legendary physicist Marie Curie ― and drove at least one of them out of the country. Meanwhile, Portugal’s leading anti-nuclear campaigner, the politically conservative José Delgado Domingos, died in 2014 still denying the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide emissions are causing climate change.
Whatever the causes of the stigma, elite opinion struck a different tone from the support shown for nuclear energy in public polls. In October 2006, on a popular television debate show that usually tackled topics with even sides of two on two, the moderator joined the side of three anti-nuclear advocates to gang up on the lone supporter of atomic energy.
When the 2011 Fukushima accident turned even those countries that used nuclear power against the energy source, asking Portuguese citizens to consider building a reactor became irrelevant. The country hasn’t even bothered to refuel its one research reactor ― used for scientific studies, not electricity production ― since 2019. The arguments against atomic energy remain largely unchanged: the risk of a radiation accident is too scary, the cost of building a reactor is too high, and, perhaps most tellingly, the potential electoral consequences for a political party that imposes nuclear energy are too dire.
But as wildfires char a drought-parched Portugal, there are signs that the door to nuclear is opening once again. In September, the Ordem dos Engenheiros, the leading engineering guild in the country, held its first-ever conference on nuclear power. The Associação Industrial Portuguesa, the trade group representing the country’s manufacturers and big companies, plans to hold a second confab, tentatively scheduled for mid-January.
And even some elder statesmen are getting on board. Luís Mira Amaral, a prominent Social Democratic politician, served as Portugal’s energy minister for eight years starting in 1987, the year after the Soviet Union triggered the world’s only major deadly nuclear energy accident at Chernobyl. But in an interview on Thursday, the 77-year-old lamented the fact that both the Socialists and his own party “strictly follow the German model that is proving a big disaster for Germany and Europe, of only thinking about renewables.”
“For the energy transition all over the world, nuclear is essential,” Mira Amaral told HuffPost. “Renewable energy, namely wind power plants and photovoltaic power plants, don’t solve the problem.”
Portugal, he said, is already using nuclear power thanks to its grid’s connections to Spain, which generates roughly one-fifth of its electricity from seven large-scale reactors scattered around the country. Spain’s socialist acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez plans to begin shutting down the country’s reactors in 2027, with a goal to eliminate atomic energy entirely by 2035.
This has direct implications for Portugal. Unlike other parts of Europe, which are interconnected to each other on all sides via high-voltage power cables, Iberia is an energy bottleneck, connected to the rest of the continent only by a few lines, and Portugal’s only connections are to Spain. Spanish nuclear power helped keep Portugal’s lights on when fossil fuels were scarce and hydroelectric dams ran low on water. If another energy crisis hits and Spain’s nuclear reactors are gone, there will be few backups for Portugal.
“If Spain shuts down nuclear power plants, obviously this would increase the risk of a supply shortage in Portugal,” Mira Amaral said. If the countries’ shared grid needs to meet Spain’s much larger electricity demand without the help of reactors, “it will be more difficult for the Spanish network to help the Portuguese network.”
Since Portugal’s grid is relatively small, Mira Amaral said the best option for building the country’s first nuclear plant would be to enter into a joint project with Spain, or else wait for small modular reactors ― which many in the nuclear industry hope will make building atomic power stations cheaper and faster through assembly-line repetition ― to hit the market.
Still, Mira Amaral said it’s too early to discuss the different types of plants when both parties, including his own, remain steadfastly opposed to even talking about nuclear power.
“Let’s hope for the future, but at the moment, I don’t see the two parties wanting to discuss this issue,” Mira Amaral said.
But he said he thinks it’s likely that his party will, short of winning an outright majority, form a coalition government with one or two smaller conservative parties. One of the likely parties the Social Democrats would ally with is the Liberal Initiative, a libertarian party that supports nuclear energy. Another, the far-right Chega party, also supports atomic energy, but seems less likely to join with the center right.
The other hope for changing minds in Portugal’s political class, Mira Amaral said, would be for Germany to reverse its nuclear phase-out. There is some hope that may happen. This past week, German opposition leader Friedrich Merz outlined a plan to restart the country’s nuclear fleet if his center-right Christian Democratic Union, the party of former longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel, unseats the center-left Chancellor Olaf Sholz in the next election.
But closer to home, Bianca Dragomir, the head of Cleantech of Iberia ― a newly formed consortium of tech investors and policy wonks focused on increasing low-carbon investments in Spain and Portugal ― said she expects the recently reelected government in Madrid to remain committed to its plans to shut down nuclear reactors.
“In Spain, there are clear targets to phase out nuclear power, so the space of opportunity for clean tech is heading in another direction,” Dragomir said. “If you look at Iberia, and I’ve been looking at the sector for over nine years, there’s a quite strong drive toward phasing out nuclear.”
Still, the students who put together the nuclear seminar in Lisbon are looking to the future, and reaching for help farther from Portugal’s shores. Two high-profile American pro-nuclear activists spoke at the event, just as the U.S. government is inviting countries to sign on to a global pledge to build more nuclear plants, including in nations that haven’t previously had them. Later this month, two students from the class are scheduled to attend the United Nations’ climate summit in Dubai, where the U.S. and the United Kingdom plan for the first time to promote a massive buildout of nuclear reactors to help deal with climate change.
“We are at the very early stages,” said Rodrigo Casimiro, one of the students who organized the seminar and plans to go to the U.N. climate summit. “But we have to try.”
Guimarãis, meanwhile, has been making calls to regulators and lawmakers in hopes of turning the political tide. We “will need a replacement for shuttered Spanish nuclear,” he said over lunch at a restaurant a few hundred feet from the arena where upward of 75,000 investors, startup executives and international journalists had gathered that week for one of Europe’s biggest tech conferences.
“Portugal is a very attractive place for foreign investment,” he said. “We’re a democratic, peaceful country with awesome weather, where pursuing higher or technical education is encouraged. But if we want to meet climate goals and keep a prosperous society, nuclear must be a key player.”