The Spanish government has decided against phasing out its nuclear capacity and has instead renewed the operating licenses of three nuclear plants, despite them nearing their 40-year lifespan. This clearly highlights its growing interest in nuclear energy, and also the mounting need to make the country's energy infrastructure more environmentally sustainable.
Spain's age-old battle between negative public opinion over the use of nuclear power and the nation's requirement for nuclear power to sustain increasing energy consumption levels finally seems be shifting in favor of the latter.
The country's dependency on fossil fuels is primarily import oriented. Moreover, Spanish grid connectivity with the rest of Europe is not dependable, as the only system capacities available are 600MW to Majorca, 1,100MW to Portugal, and 500MW to France. Also, EU targets for 2020 have dictated that the nation needs to cut emissions, increase the share of renewable energy sources, and increase energy efficiency, which has resulted in the Action Plan 2008-2012 Energy Saving and Efficiency Strategy amendment to the Spanish National Energy Plan, an attempt by the Council of Ministers to identify strategic objectives and route energy policies to achieve them. All of these points demand the reduced use of fossil fuels.
The domestic energy generation portfolio of Spain predominantly relies on coal, nuclear, wind, and significant hydro assets. Despite being the fourth largest wind energy base in the world, the need for additional energy from nuclear power generation would seem inevitable. Demand in Spain peaks when domestic air conditioning or electric heating systems are being used; namely, when the temperature rises or drops to its extremes. This is typically during periods of high pressure, when wind velocity drops. Furthermore, the Monthly Precipitation Database of Spain (MOPREDAS) states that the country's 10 hydrological basins have shown a steep decline in precipitation levels, reducing the length of the rainy season and causing inconsistent monsoons. All of these factors make hydro energy not fit for peak demand in the longer run.
In 2009, nuclear energy contributed almost 20% of Spain's total power generation, with a 10.6% decline in generation from the previous year. This is due to the many environmental concerns and political obligations that the government has had to contend with over the last decade. However, its stance seems to have dramatically changed, as most nuclear plants in Spain are closed ahead of their 40-year lifespan. This change of heart is probably due to growing pressure to increase energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions, both of which are met by nuclear power. Another reason could be that nuclear power does not have any direct impact on global warming, which is the key consideration for all environmental regulatory bodies. The fuel waste from nuclear is also of concern, but with improved technology and investments could be curbed to a large extent.
Greenpeace activists in Spain have been fighting against the use of nuclear energy, quoting the toxicity of its waste and the lack of proper storage for said waste. Spain has been storing spent rods within the plants or sending them to France for reprocessing. Spain's plan to build a centralized nuclear waste storage facility (the Almacen Nuclear Centralizado) is the first sign of the country's nuclear renaissance. This will no doubt lead to heavy interest in the research and development of nuclear fission technologies and recycling facilities to meet energy efficiency targets.
It could be said that Spain's socialist government has brought out a pro-nuclear policy to coincide with the forthcoming elections; however, Datamonitor sees a more long-term nuclear agenda in Spain. With a large upcoming investment in waste disposal and the recent u-turn in policy in favor of nuclear power, the creation of new nuclear plants to meet the country's energy demand once the existing plants phase out seems likely. Also, investments in nuclear fission R&D are expected to rise in order to achieve greater energy efficiency. The road to nuclear power in Spain has not been smooth and is unlikely to improve any time soon, but contrary to earlier speculation, Datamonitor sees a strong growth path for nuclear energy in the distant future.