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Nuclear energy might not be on its way out in Spain after all

The extension of a power plant's life in Spain heats up debate about the value and role of nuclear power in tomorrow's world.

Workers from Garona nuclear power station take part in a protest against the plant's planned closure, outside Madrid's Parliament, June 24, 2009. Their signs read: "Garona creates more employment than Zapatero," and "Listen Zapatero, Garona is still fighting." This past summer, the government decided to extend the life of the power plant. It will now stay open until 2013, two years after it was supposed to close. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

MADRID, Spain — Spain’s center-left governing party’s 2008 election manifesto committed to the “gradual replacement” of nuclear energy and to the “orderly closing” of the country’s nuclear plants at the end of their “useful life.”


It was a promise that sounded good to many green organizations, but also one that was called into question this year when the government decided to renew the license of the nuclear station in Santa Maria de Garona, located in the northern province of Burgos. The four-year extension to Garona's lifespan means that it will operate until 2013, past its 40-year design lifetime and two years after it was originally supposed to shut down.


And then this month, according to Spanish media, Mariano Rajoy, who leads the main opposition party, visited Garona and pledged that, if elected in 2012, he would keep the plant open even longer.


The initial decision to prolong the plant, announced in July 2009 by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was labeled “a missed opportunity” by green organizations, the nuclear industry and economists, albeit for different reasons. And the ensuing debate revealed inconvenient truths about nuclear energy that may ultimately test its viability in Spain.


“Maintaining Garona open four more years is a calamity,” contended Ana Rosa Martinez, a Greenpeace spokesperson. “The plant is old, dangerous and marginal in the production of electricity,” she argued.

But Teresa Dominguez, director of Foro Nuclear, an association of Spanish nuclear industry companies, disagreed. “It’s an outrage to not extend the operation of an electrical installation that meets all safety guarantees.”

Garona started up in 1971 and is the oldest nuclear plant operating in Spain. A non-binding Nuclear Security Council report unanimously recommended the extension of its license for 10 more years, as it deemed the plant safe. The report did specify a series of safety improvements the plant owners Endesa and Iberdrola will have to implement.

Emilio Jarillo, in charge of press for energy matters at the Ministry of Industry, called the four-year extension “adequate.” He said the government needs time to implement an economic development plan for the area, to replace the jobs that will be lost when Garona no longer exists, and to build a central temporary warehouse for the storage of spent fuel before dismantling Garona.

“A capitulation to electrical companies’ interest,” said Martinez from Greenpeace. By renewing Garona’s operating license, she believes the Spanish government has wasted a chance to send the electrical companies a message that their focus should be on renewable energies. “Nuclear energy is not essential in Spain. Unlike the U.S., we have developed renewable energies to replace it. In the U.S. many nuclear plants are getting old, but they don’t have alternatives compatible with the current climate change situation. We do,” explained Martinez.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in 2008, Spain had 18 percent of its electricity coming from the eight reactors of its six nuclear plants, putting the country 18th in the world for nuclear electricity generation. France, with 76 percent share, and Lithuania, with almost 73 percent, lead the ranking. In the U.S., the share was 19.6 percent. Thirty thousand people work in the Spanish nuclear sector, according to Foro Nuclear.

A leader in wind and solar energy, Spain aims to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewable power by 2020. Jarillo said renewable resources accounted for 24 percent of Spain’s electricity at the end of last year.

However, Foro Nuclear said, “today an electric system of any country cannot work only with renewables, for they depend on external agents and are not always available when we need them.”