Spain nuclear plant fate hangs in balance

Author: Jon Stibbs

2016/02/15

The future of Spain’s nuclear power plants remains unclear because the country is yet to form its next government despite general elections having been held back in December.

In particular the fate of one plant, the offline 470MW Santa Maria de Garona, hangs in the balance.

Spain’s energy ministry has to decide whether the Nuclenor-owned plant can reopen. Nuclenor is a joint venture between Spanish utilities Iberdrola and Endesa.

Nuclenor opened the plant in 1971 and took it offline in December 2012 pending upgrades. Although, the plant had a license to stay in operation until 2019, assuming it received upgrades. The company now wants permission to run the facility until 2031.

But no governing coalition has emerged from the general election, which was held on 20 December 2015, when the centre-right People’s Party lost its majority. As such the plant’s fate remains in limbo.

Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council (CSN), the regulator for Spain’s nuclear sector, confirmed last week that the plant would be technically ready to reopen. However, it will not be submitting its official report to the energy ministry until the second half of this year.

It will now be up to the ministry to decide whether to grant permission for a new licence.

“It is a mix between a technical decision [because the ministry cannot take a decision without CSN’s technical report] and a governmental decision,” said a spokesperson for CSN on Tuesday.

The plant’s operator failed to respond to requests for information on its plans.

Political positions

In theory a decision on Garona can be made before a new government is installed. However, there is considerable opposition to this from political parties jostling to form the next government.

The socialist PSOE party, the left-wing Podemos and the progressive Ciudadanos parties have all committed to the closure of the Garona plant and the removal of nuclear facilities as they come to the end of their licenses.

But Podemos has called for no decisions to be made over the future of Garona by the current caretaker government.

Excess capacity

Spain has five operating nuclear plants, two of which have two units, plus Garona.

And a second plant is also the focus of a recent CSN probe. The agency recently announced it had approved the safety of two sections of the 2.1GW Almaraz nuclear power plant, which is majority owned by Iberdola, with Endesa and Union Fenosa as minority shareholders.

There were doubts about the water pumping at the two sections of the plant, which has licenses until 2021 and 2023.

A spokesperson for environmental group Greenpeace said the next governing coalition would need to decide whether to overturn the CSN’s ruling about Almaraz, effectively closing the plant.

Again, the operator of the plant failed to reply to requests for comment.

Fundamentals

Despite the opposing forces for and against nuclear power in Spain, it could simply be the fundamentals of the energy system that have the final say.

It is possible that Spain does not need the capacity provided by the Garona and Almaraz plants. Last year, the country had total installed capacity of 108GW, of which nuclear made up 7.9GW, while peak demand is around 44GW.

On the other hand, the share of installed capacity held by variable renewable sources is relatively large, and growing. Therefore a reliable source of baseload power generation will be necessary for many years to come.

The secretary general of PSOE in Castilla y Leon Luis Tudanca said on the party’s website there had been no electricity supply problems in Spain since Garona closed.

And although over-capacity remains an issue in Spain, demand for power is growing again. Consumption climbed by 1.9% last year for the first time in four years, according to provisional figures from the transmission system operator REE. jon.stibbs@icis.com