Spain: Anti-nuclear at home, but selling it abroad
4 October 2011
The government calls itself “anti-nuclear”, and no plant has been constructed for over 20 years. And yet Spain's nuclear industry, aided by the government, continues to grow, mostly in developing countries.
The photo is in the corner of the office. In it, Juan Ortega, director of business development for Tecnatom, one of Spain’s leading nuclear technology firms, is shaking hands with the president of China Nuclear National Corporation. They are in La Moncloa, it is January of 2009, and they have just signed a cooperation agreement. Behind them are the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and Spain’s Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is looking the other way.
That's the recent history of the Spanish nuclear industry: at home, brought to a halt; abroad, promoted. No nuclear plant has been built in Spain since 1988, and in that time one and a half (Zorita in 2006 and Garonne for 2013) have been shut down. Over the past seven years, Spain has had a government that is officially anti-nuclear and chaired by the “most anti-nuclear person in the government” (as Zapatero defined himself in a meeting with environmentalists in 2005). The majority of the public is against nuclear power. And yet, at the same time, the export of nuclear technology has only grown, especially to developing countries.
The case isn’t unique. Spain is not a country with its own nuclear technology, nor can it compare even remotely with France or the U.S., but it does have the engineering. And it’s selling it. Westinghouse's head office in Spain is in a nondescript building in the centre of Madrid. But what goes on inside can hardly be anticipated. There, 92 engineers are working on building the containment shell (an essential safety barrier) and the auxiliary building of the Sanmen nuclear plant in China.
"It seems a contradiction"
ENSA is a public company owned by the Sociedad Estatal de Participaciones Industriales, a state-owned industrial holding company. Of the 85 million euros in sales for ENSA, 84 percent come from abroad, according to the report La industria nuclear española (Spain’s nuclear industry), which has just been published by the Foro Nuclear (Nuclear Forum). The other public company in the sector, the Empresa Nacional del Uranio (Enusa), also looks abroad. Although Spain has to import the uranium, it produces nuclear fuel, 60 percent of which is exported: to Finland, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and France, and at times even to the U.S.
With the nuclear revival in China in 2008, the government sponsored the creation of the Spanish Nuclear Group for China, a strategic partnership of four companies: Tecnatom, Ensa, Enusa and Ringo Válvulas. The latter also serves nuclear power plants, such as the one at Qinshan in China. Its director, José Manuel García, stresses the value of Spain’s nuclear sector: “There was a halt to construction in Spain more than 20 years ago, but companies have managed to stay afloat through sales to foreign countries.”
Is it consistent for a country with an anti-nuclear government to promote the nuclear industry in developing countries? “We have a lot of support [from the executive]. It seems a contradiction, but that’s how it is,” replies Maria Teresa Dominguez, president of the Nuclear Forum and director of the Empresarios Agrupados, a group of companies that has partnered with General Electric to design Lungmen nuclear plant in Taiwan. Spain, she says, should use its position as a country with expertise and experts in nuclear matters.
"Mood isn’t euphoric"
Sources in the Spanish government contend that there is no conflict. It is one thing to want to shut down one’s nuclear industry by closing the plants and another to want to maintain a technologically advanced industry that can make domestic plants safe while encouraging exports. Also, they note that public companies are answerable to the Ministry of the Economy, while nuclear policy falls under the Ministry of Industry.
Sooner or later the impact of Fukushima will reach Spain, now that the IAEA has lowered its forecast for the construction of new reactors around the world. Nuclear projects in the UK, in which Iberdrola is involved, have been held up, as they have in Italy (whose main electricity utility, Enel, has no nuclear experience but does own Endesa); Chile, a country in a highly active seismic region, cancelled its plan to build a nuclear reactor, and Endesa is present there.
“The mood isn’t euphoric, because we would be deluded if we had much faith, but the issue is not yet closed,” sums up the head of Westinghouse in Spain, José Emeterio Gutiérrez, who hopes that the German nuclear power shut-down will be followed by a revival in eastern Europe. Without nuclear plants in Germany, Austria and Italy, and with plans afoot to close them in Switzerland, Europe can end up split from north to south by a “nuclear black hole.” And that is where Spanish firms expect to have some options. The nuclear race will be run abroad.
Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer