In the last week of December, the Spanish Ministry Council approved the seventh “General Plan for Radioactive Waste”, the last piece of the puzzle the PSOE, the Socialist Party, needed to confirm the shutdown of the Spanish nuclear fleet by 2035. The plan lays out a roadmap for nuclear waste management after dismantling the reactors. It’s expected the waste management and dismantling of the plants will cost around EUR20 billion (USD21.85 billion) and should be supported by the plants’ operators.

Nuclear was the hot topic of the last general election

During the 2023 Spanish general election, the closure of the remaining nuclear plants was a major disagreement between the two main parties. The conservatives, the Partido Popular, were campaigning to keep running the plants for longer, arguing that closure would only make the country more dependent, and therefore vulnerable, to electricity imports.

On the other side, the socialists were pushing for the complete closure of the remaining reactors to avoid spending billions in running cost over the next decades, as the Spanish fleet is between 35 and 40 years old. For the left-wing party, this additional spending would discourage investment in renewables.

What would closing nuclear plants mean for the Spanish energy mix?

Spain is indeed a leader in renewables deployment in Europe. In 2023, wind was the leading generation source for the first time (24% of total electricity generation – 63.7TWh). Added to solar generation (37TWh) and hydro (25.5TWh), meaning renewables generated almost 50% of the country’s electricity last year. The country has seven nuclear reactors (totaling 7GW capacity) accounting for a fifth of electricity production. The shutdown would start in 2027 and should be completed in 2035, looking at the government’s current plans.

Rho’s Evaluation

European states have set increasingly higher renewable targets with shorter timelines, but nuclear power is a focal point for opposition regarding the decarbonisation of the continent’s electricity generation. The debate has become more intense since the energy crisis in 2022, with the argument of supply security back in the spotlight, fighting the long-standing arguments of safety, high costs and waste management issues.

Two blocks have formed. One anti-nuclear, led by Germany and one pro-nuclear led by France. Indeed, in 2023, Germany closed its last nuclear plants, putting an end to decades of debate in the country. Italy had already closed its nuclear fleet in 1990. Belgium was supposed to shut down its remaining reactors but decided to keep two plants running for the next decade.

On the other hand, 70% of France’s electricity is produced by nuclear, followed by Belgium and Slovakia with around 50%. Other countries with notable nuclear capacities include Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, and the Netherlands.  Spain’s decision goes against a widespread consensus following COP28, where 20 countries (over half European) agreed to cooperate on a goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity globally by 2050.

The deep disagreement on nuclear could be seen as a national issue with no impact on European policy. However, it has the potential to disrupt several vital EU projects for the continent’s decarbonisation. This was seen during the Green Deal adoption, on the designation of nuclear-derived hydrogen as “green” or during the European electricity market reform when Germany opposed France in the inclusion of nuclear plants in the CfD state mechanism. With a shift of the focus towards the energy transition, the nuclear debate may seem out of the spotlight for now, but it will resurface every time an agreement needs to be reached between the 27 member states.

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Sources: ElpaisREEWorld NuclearReutersReuters