February 20, 2017
Guest blog post by Bernardo Pereira
Spain’s Rajoy government is driving the country’s energy policy, and the nuclear interests of big industry players Iberdrola, Endesa and GasNatural Fenosa, into a full up-front collision with non-nuclear neighbour Portugal. As the deadline to decommission the old Almaraz nuclear power plant approaches, owners are planning to build a radioactive waste storage facility on-site, which should permit the nuclear plant to receive another operating extension, beyond 2020. Originally the plant was to be shut-down by 2010, and since it has reported a series of anomalies and problems.
The issue with Portugal is that Almaraz is located on the Tagus River which flows right into the country’s economic heart and the capital city Lisbon. The nuclear plant is situated close to the Portuguese border, where Portuguese authorities have regularly detected some nuclear contamination in the river waters, and consistently the highest level of radiation of any of the rivers in Portugal (e.g. ITN, 2014). Despite Portugal’s non-nuclear policy and good performance in renewables (e.g. Guardian, 2016), it is subject to the dangers and risks of nuclear energy from its neighbours.
The “temporary” waste deposit planned for Almaraz was licenced without any consultation to the Portuguese government, and the environmental impact assessment was realized without any mention of risks to Portugal. Portuguese Environment Minister Matos Fernandes had been requesting meetings with his Spanish counterpart since he took office in early 2016, but only received a reply after unilateral approval of the temporary nuclear waste deposit for Almaraz was issued by the Spanish authorities last December, sparking a diplomatic issue between the two Iberian countries – after Portugal called the Spanish ambassador to the Foreign Office in Lisbon.
The meeting finally held in Madrid on January 12th, 2017 between the Portuguese Minister and Spain’s Ministers of Environment and Energy was inconclusive, and Spain’s policy has been of silence and little information provided on the issue. In Portugal, a claim was issued to the European Commission due to Spain’s illegal approval of the waste site at Almaraz, not taking into consideration EU rules on environmental impact and trans-border issues, and at the same time Portugal’s parliament voted unanimously (all members of parliament, from all parties, left to right) to call for the closure of Almaraz nuclear power plant and a tougher stance with Spain.
In the meantime, various protests have been held in front of Spain’s consulate in Lisbon, gathering hundreds of people from both countries. The regional government of Spanish Extremadura, where the nuclear plant is situated, sides with Portugal, as do environmental movements such as MIA, Quercus and Zero, and some political parties in Spain itself, such as the left-wing Podemos. At a local level meetings have been held, mobilizing environmentalists, local business associations, agricultural organizations, and various municipal governments on the Portuguese side of the border such as Vila Velha de Rodão, Idanha and Castelo Branco have mobilized in protest also, supporting initiatives such as Tejo Seguro – with an independently operated on-line Geiger counter placed on the border closest to Almaraz (http://allbesmart.ddns.net/te
The latest developments occurred both this week: a previously approved inspection visit from the Portuguese Order of Engineers was refused at the last minute with no justification, just as the group of specialists was travelling to Almaraz. On the other hand, both of the major shareholders of Almaraz nuclear power plant operating in Portugal also, Iberdrola and Endesa, refused to attend a parliamentary commission they had been convened to attend.
The silence from these major players, has been common in Spain’s mainstream political sphere. Besides the Extremadura regional government and environmentalist movements, little questioning has come forth regarding nuclear power in Spain, and recently pro-nuclear publicity has even managed to get to the ABC newspaper’s front cover … On the other hand Portugal’s complaint to the European Commission will be handled – at least in part – by Spanish EU Commissioner for Energy and Climate Policy, Miguel Arias Cañete, a staunch supporter of extending nuclear plant lifetime (The Parliament, 2015) and brother of Alfonso Arias Cañete, the first head of Endesa’s Nuclear directorate, one of the owners of Almaraz nuclear power plant (Europa Press, 2008).
Big business interest are at stake on the Spanish side, where an open discussion regarding nuclear power amongst the mainstream is still very incipient. On the other hand, the Portuguese population is sensitive to this issue, and won’t accept the external risks and costs imposed by nuclear power plant which it chose not to have. Will the EU manage to play an important role, and regain some of the credibility it needs?
Nuclear contamination of the Tagus River
Arias Cañete and nuclear energy: