Héctor Doninguis is the host of the 47th Meeting of the Spanish Nuclear Society, which has gathered 600 professionals in Cartagena during this week.
The war in Ukraine and the energy crisis have led us to an increasingly unpredictable situation.
The energy crisis does not start with the war in Ukraine. Electricity prices start to skyrocket before the summer of 2021, when there was still no notion of the invasion. The problem that arises is an excessive dependence on fossil fuels, the prices of which are starting to skyrocket. What the war has done is to deepen that crisis. What the current situation does is to intensify that dependence and generate greater uncertainty. The world is beginning to question whether its energy mix is adequate. All countries with nuclear energy are reviewing their reactor closure plans and are even considering building new ones. What they are looking for is security of supply, environmental sustainability, because we have to decarbonize the economy, and finally, industrial competitiveness. What all countries are looking for is to comply with these three axes, and in Spain we are failing in all three.
Spain is going to retire nuclear power, while Europe has said that nuclear energy is green. That is difficult to understand.
Nuclear energy is considered green because it is sustainable, it emits the least CO2 into the atmosphere, together with wind energy, and it generates radioactive waste that can be managed with technically sound solutions. Contrary to what happens with fossil fuels, it generates a waste that does not pollute.
We are talking about nuclear waste.
Fortunately, nuclear energy has procedures and regulatory bodies that ensure that nuclear waste is managed impeccably and that it has no impact on the environment or on people's health. All nuclear power plants in Spain have environmental monitoring plans controlled by the Nuclear Safety Council that guarantee this. The European Commission delegates to its research centers to study the impact on the environment and it is the one that says that it is equivalent to that of renewables. The United Nations committee of experts on climate change also says so. There are scientific reports that endorse and confirm the sustainability of nuclear power.
But we all have Chernobyl in our memories and now we are aware of the threat of the Zaporiyia power plant in the face of the clashes in Ukraine. We also remember that the problem in Fukushima was caused by a tsunami.
There are no plants like Chernobyl left today. It was an obsolete technology and also the work culture at that time is obsolete. That accident could not happen with today's technology. If we talk about Fukushima, Japan itself, eleven years later, has decided to reactivate ten nuclear reactors and to build up to seven new ones. This decision comes about because the World Health Organization has done epidemiological studies showing that there have been no increases in diseases and cancers related to radiation exposure. The Fukushima accident has had no impact on people's health. In Japan the tsunami generated many victims, but the nuclear accident did not cause casualties. What has happened in the country is that by shutting down the nuclear power plants and switching to dependence on fossil fuels there has been an increase in illnesses due to contamination.
Is it possible for Spain to change its plans to close the plants in view of the current crisis or is there no turning back?
Of course there is a way back. In Spain we have a National Energy and Climate Plan, which foresees the closure of four power plants between now and 2030 and another three between 2030 and 2035. This was decided at a time when the situation was very different from what we have now. In 2023 the Plan will be reviewed to see if the decarbonization and electricity demand targets are being met. The Nuclear Energy Society is calling for a review of this plan. Fossil fuels can generate an energy crisis like the one we have, while nuclear gives us autonomy, since political changes have little impact on the cost.
What could happen this winter if Europe runs out of gas?
In Spain we do not foresee a lack of energy this winter, the uncertainty comes from the price. It is possible that we will have to burn more gas than expected, that will push up prices. What we decide now will affect us for the next 50 years, just as what we are experiencing now is the result of decisions made 40 years ago, when it was decided to build twenty nuclear power plants, but in the end ten were built and then three were closed. If we had continued with the plants we had planned, today our dependence on gas would be much less. That is why it is important that strategic decisions are made based on scientific reasoning and not on political ideologies.
But renewables give more peace of mind
All energy sources have their pros and cons. Renewables have to grow, because they are necessary and competitive. But what they have is that we do not control them, we do not decide when to turn on or off the wind or photovoltaic, when it rains more or rains less. As they are not enough, we have to decide whether to complement them with combined cycles, with coal or with nuclear power.
Are we going to see a new expansion of nuclear power?
The year 2021 is the year with the most reactors under construction since 1986. A nuclear power plant can operate for 60 to 80 years, thus avoiding CO2 emissions.