GUILLERMO DEL PALACIO
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On April 15, Germany will close – in principle, definitively – the three nuclear reactors that it still had in operation. It will do so somewhat later than planned: they were supposed to stop at the end of 2022, but the coalition government was forced to extend its useful life as much as possible in the face of the threat of a cold and gas-free winter. They rushed a few months, but it was impossible to reverse a closure established years earlier. Now, therefore, the only option for them to return to work would be to stop completely and resume activity after several years, although it does not seem to enter the Berlin plans. Meanwhile, Spain, which will begin the gradual closure in 2027, will reach that point of no return in 2024 due to the deadlines necessary to buy uranium and train workers. Currently, nuclear power generates around 20% of all electricity in the country.
If there are no changes, Almaraz I (Cáceres) will be the first to close in November 2027. In October 2028 its twin Almaraz II will continue and in 2030 Ascó I (located in Tarragona, it will close in October) and Cofrentes (in Valencia, it will close in November). The process will continue in September 2032 with Ascó II and will culminate in 2035 when Vandellós II (also in Tarragona) and Trillo (Guadalajara) in May are turned off in February. The Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC) includes the first four closures and, according to sources from the Ministry for Ecological Transition, there are no changes in the update of the plan that the European Commission must receive before summer.
That is why next year is the deadline. There are "a series of conditions" that make it excessively difficult or prevent changing your mind after 2024, according to Ignacio Araluce, president of Foro Nuclear. "We would have to ask for an extension of the license and that has its deadlines," he says, because feasibility and safety studies have to be done. But that, in any case, depends on whether it will be possible to continue. There are others more tangible, which have to do with the day-to-day operation of a plant. "The fuel collection is not immediate, you have to make a design of the fuel elements, the enrichment ...", lists Araluce. It also takes time to train personnel, "especially those who have the license to operate nuclear power plants", who spend years learning what is necessary to perform their function. And, of course, it has to be a profession of the future to attract new employees: "You have to be clear about the time horizon in which the plant will operate, so that, when hiring people, you can tell them that they have a professional future".
To this we must add more pedestrian tasks, such as agreements with contractors, maintenance or the collection of spare parts in a sector in which the equipment "is not in the normal market, has nuclear and seismic qualification". "By putting all this in a basket, we get, more or less, that to have a smooth change to be able to extend the license more years from the 27th, a decision must be made at the end of the 24th, three years in advance," confirms the president of Foro Nuclear. "It's not absolutely mathematical, but it would be out there."
There have already been voices that have asked the NECP to contemplate this new reality. The Plan, approved in 2019, was drafted in an energy, political and social context very different from the current one, before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In addition, it was hoped in the development of technologies such as batteries or thermoelectric solar energy that, for the moment, have not arrived or have not done so at the expected pace.
José Bogás, CEO of Endesa, already declared that "nuclear power must be extended" after presenting the company's results at the end of February. The Spanish Nuclear Association, formed by workers in the sector, also expressed itself in this regard. Everyone agrees that the generation system is not prepared to get rid of the atomic source, even gradually, because it is the only way to produce electricity constantly. The sun sets, the wind stops blowing and water is scarce, but nuclear water – except for scheduled stops – is always there and works more than 90% of the hours of the year.
"The NECP was based on the fact that there were going to be a series of technologies that were going to enter and support the system," says an executive of an electric company. According to the executive, "you cannot trust a plan that is based on technologies that do not exist." "The day they exist, put them in the plan; as long as they don't exist, no," he argues. In this sense, the German case serves as an example of nuclear times: "The Government considers at the last minute whether to extend the life of the plants and the reality is that they do not have personnel, nor do they have fuel, nor do they have uranium, nor do they have maintenance ... They have nothing to follow."
"Nuclear is an ocean liner: even if you put the propeller in reverse, it does not stop immediately, it has an inertia", illustrates Ignacio Araluce. And you don't have to go far to get an idea of what it might mean to abandon a technology, because it happened just five years ago with coal. In 2018, thermal power plants that are powered by this fuel contributed 14.3% of all Spanish electricity and in 2019 they went to 4.9%. In that same interval, gas went from 11.5% to 21.2%, its highest percentage weight until 2022.
The situation, therefore, would be similar in 2027, but with greater renewable deployment. Especially photovoltaic, which is the source that has grown the most in installed power since then (it has gone from 4,771 MW in 2018 to 20,203 MW in 2023, according to Redeia data). The electrical system is robust and, although the meshing is changing -it goes from a few concentrated cores of high production to many dispersed ones of lower power-, it usually responds without problems with the joint generation of wind, photovoltaic, cogeneration and the nuclear cabinet fund. If there are peaks, the combined cycle gas or hydraulics come into operation.
Problems arise when something does not work or the network is stressed for some reason. The fall of a connection with France or the arrival of a storm like Philomena can do it. Also a dry summer with heat waves in which, precisely, the French nuclear park has problems and Spain must come to the rescue of its plugs and export more electricity than ever, as happened in 2022. The solution was gas and although the promise of green hydrogen is there, it is difficult for it to be a reality in 2027.
Hydrogen is neither there nor expected", ditches the same manager. The truth is that renewable gas has everyone's interest, but there are few projects that are already tangible as an alternative to gas. In addition, the combined cycle plants themselves could lose interest because they are available in a context in which they barely provide a few hours of operation per day, especially if the price of gas does not fall. And this without forgetting that nuclear also comes into play in this fuel, since it can be produced with electricity from reactors, the so-called pink hydrogen, and France intends to do so.
To this we must add that, traditionally, it has been a source that has generated social rejection. It happened when there was hardly any renewable deployment and the position gains arguments when it becomes an alternative. "You can have a 100% renewable system and it would be sustainable," argues Francisco del Pozo, head of the campaign against fossil fuels and spokesman for Greenpeace. It refers to waste, a but from which nuclear can never be released, but also to fuels. "There has been a lot of talk about Russian gas, Russian oil, but nobody talks about Russian nuclear fuel," del Pozo recalls.
His position is not only to maintain this timetable, but he believes that it could be brought forward. "We believe that the progression with which renewables and demand management systems are entering the market, it is possible to close nuclear and, at the same time, progressively abandon fossil fuels," he explains. Despite the intermittency of wind or solar, he considers that "with an adequate energy mix" with the presence of solar thermal or hydraulic, it would be possible to do so. "It would allow it to be a 100% renewable system and, above all, independent of Russian fuels or anywhere else."
Thus, nuclear will have to fight against another of its characteristics: it is the most ideologized energy source. Its detractors criticize the impact of waste that will continue to emit radiation thousands of years after the plants have been closed, while its defenders justify these millenary consequences by the benefits it generates in a present that is measured in decades. "Nuclear has a very large ideological component," Araluce concedes, although he recalls that right now "any decision can have a potential electoral impact," not only those that have to do with the energy sector. In addition, he explains that, although this component – which he has had "always" – continues to exist, there is also, "increasingly, a pragmatic component: the idea that nuclear power plants are competitive in price and alleviate the price of energy is penetrating."
What is clear is that, in the long term, Spain has opted for renewables to replace nuclear as it did before with coal. No one here has any doubts, not even within the nuclear sector itself, where they assume it. But in the short term, substitution means leaving reactors to depend on gas-burning combined cycles, which is more polluting, less efficient and more worrying from the point of view of energy sovereignty.
The NECP, in any case, is not the roadmap for nuclear dismantling, which is included in the General Radioactive Waste Plan. That is, the update of the document will simply be done to better reflect the country's energy reality in the coming years, but the closure of the plants could be postponed even if a different plan has been sent to Brussels. Although they do not say it openly, many executives of the sector, in fact, believe that a debate will be opened about it, but it will happen in 2024, to move the conversation away from the elections. The decision will be made cold.
Fountain: Red Eléctrica de España, Foro Nuclear, Our World in Data and Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge
Information: Guillermo del Palacio, Elsa Martín and Alberto Hernández
Graphics: Elsa Martin
Art direction: María González Manteca and Josetxu L. Piñeiro
According to The Trust Project criteria
- Nuclear energy
- European Union