Spain goes halfway on nuclear power

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's decision to keep a small nuclear plant operating has been criticized on both the right and the left.

Susana Vera/Reuters
Workers at the Garoña nuclear power station took part in a June 24 protest against the plant's planned closure. The banners read: "Garoña creates more employment than Zapatero" and "Listen Zapatero, Garoña is still fighting."

Increasingly unpopular Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero sought a Solomonic solution last week when he ordered the shutdown of the country's oldest nuclear power plant for 2013, but few are pleased.

Mr. Zapatero had pledged to decommission nuclear plants once their 40-year lifespan expired, which in the case of the Santa María de Garoña station would have been in 2011. But then politics and the economy got in the way.

"It's not an easy decision," he said Thursday, acknowledging that he would be "criticized by both sides."

And indeed he was. Parties to the left – vital to Zapatero's governing coalition in Parliament – attacked the decision to postpone the closure of Garoña and questioned the prime minister's credibility and integrity.

The conservative Popular Party, already in pre-campaign mode, said it would overturn the government's decision if it wins the 2012 general elections and that it would extend Garoña's lifespan until 2019, which is the date approved by Spain's nuclear watchdog agency in a non-binding report.

Garoña generates about 1.4 percent of the country's electricity and its 466-megawatt reactor is Spain's smallest. But the nuclear industry, which supplies 20 percent of the country's power, is concerned the decision could set a precedent.

Although none of the seven other nuclear plants are due for decommissioning for more than a decade, their operating licenses need to be renewed by Zapatero's administration. The government was quick, though, to describe Garoña's shutdown as an isolated case. It also said the 40-year lifespan of the remaining plants is not in jeopardy.

"It's a cowardly lion solution," said Ken Dubin, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid. "The nuclear issue is a wildcard that could prompt socialists to stay home or motivate them to vote for parties more to the left."

In effect, Zapatero postponed the ultimate debate over nuclear power until after the next elections. He also threw a bone to the energy industry, Mr. Dubin says. Garoña's owners, the two biggest utilities in Spain, Iberdrola and Endesa, say that they intend to sue the government for damages.

In polls, almost 60 percent of Spaniards say they are against nuclear power. That is by far the lowest level of support of any European country with operating nuclear plants, according to the latest Eurobarometer 2008 survey.

World gives nuclear energy another look

If Spain phases out nuclear power, it would be going against a global nuclear revival. There are 48 power reactors under construction, mostly in Asia, but several European Union countries are planning to build a new generation of power plants, including Britain, France, Finland, Poland, and Bulgaria.

The EU Commission, the International Energy Agency, and several other international institutions support a nuclear renaissance to fight global warming and to increase security of supply.

France, which generates most of its electricity through nuclear power, is also pushing to include atomic energy as a renewable source in the recently created International Renewable Energy Agency because of its zero greenhouse gas emission credentials.

Energy and politics

In terms of energy production, Garoña annually saves Spain the equivalent of about 1 million tons of oil and about 2.5 million tons of greenhouses gases. Spain's emissions have increased by 53 percent since 1990, by far the biggest transgressor in Western Europe, according to the latest European Environment Agency data.

And despite its efforts to boost renewable energy sources, which now account for around 20 percent of generated electricity, Spain continues to depend on expensive fossil fuels for more than 80 percent of its primary energy use.

Zapatero said he was committed to keeping only what is "essential" of Spain's nuclear park, labeling his decision "foremost a bet on renewable power because it is the future."

The halfway solution was "unsatisfactory," said Maria Teresa Dominguez, who presides over the Nuclear Forum, the umbrella group representing the industry. "This is a political and ideological decision. It is shortsighted. It's just incoherent and we can't understand it."

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