The Federal Government Backtracks On Decommissioning Cofrentes Nuclear Plant

Despite objections from environmentalists and the Valencian government, the Generalitat, Cofrentes nuclear plant will remain in operation for an additional seven years…

Picturesque Cofrentes, 60km as the crow flies or 100km by road from Valencia, is one of many popular rural escapes in the Comunidad Valenciana. With a population of around 1,000 people, it appears to be a typical sleepy Spanish village. What distinguishes it, though, is the presence of the Cofrentes nuclear plant, situated less than 2km from the city centre, soon to reach its original expiration date. 

The plant had been scheduled to close permanently in 2023, but the Ministry of Ecological Transition recently extended its life until November 2030. This U-turn came in spite of great opposition from both from the Valencian government and many environmental activist organisations.

Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant entered service on 14 October, 1984, with an installed power capacity of 992MW, that was later pushed up to 1,100MW. Built on the right flank of the Jucar river, which provides water for cooling, the plant was intended to be one of the most important sources of energy in all of Spain, and by 2010, it was producing 5% of total energy in Spain, which translates roughly into all of The Comunidad Valenciana’s energy needs. And then some, according to certain calculations.

Nuclear plants of a similar design were built to last 25 years, according to experts, but in Spain the original lifetime was projected to be 40 years. However, its problems began long before its expiration date. Cofrentes plant had three major incidents in the first decade of its existence. From 2001 to 10 March 2011 (the most recent data available), the plant experienced 25 unplanned shutdowns and the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) was notified of 102 security events. Three of these were classified as Level 1 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). That equates to an average of ten reported events per year, or nearly one per month. 

The government had until March of this year to decide the fate of the Cofrentes plant. Many people in the Comunidad Valenciana demanded that it be shut down. The Valencian ruling coalition decided in 2017 that the plant should be closed once its deadline passed, and after the Ministry of Ecological Transition decided to extend its life for another seven years, the situation shifted into a political battle, diverting attention away from the original issue. In Valencia, Unidas Podemos went so far as to call a government decision a “blow to Valencian sovereignty”.

Tanquet Cofrents, a unique platform comprised of citizen organisations, trade unions, and environmental groups, claims that the existing plant contains many irreplaceable parts, the fatigue of which will increase exponentially in the coming years. Tanquet adds that Cofrentes is Spain’s only boiling water reactor (BWR) with a single cooling circuit. Its operation evaporates the equivalent of 1.2 Olympic-sized pools of water per hour. During extended activity, an additional 300 tonnes of special, high-activity, lethal waste is generated and stored somewhere, in addition to the 800 tonnes already produced.

Greenpeace activists took it a step further. They staged a protest, broke into the nuclear power plant, and climbed into one of the reactors. They spray-painted the message ‘Nuclear Danger’ on the cooling tower in order to prevent the licence from being renewed. 

“Because of the design of the marginalist electricity market, gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewables are all paid the same price, regardless of what they really cost,” said the organisation’s Spanish division. “As a result, some sources of power generation (nuclear and hydroelectric) are overpriced, particularly in the current situation…”

All critics agree on one point: the decision-making process was rigged, and the big bad Iberdrola (who owns 100% of Cofrentes) is hugely, embarrassingly implicated.

Although it is unfortunate that an aged nuclear plant is so close to Valencia, it is only fair to note that the transition to renewables will not be easy. The big bad corporations are also involved in renewables, as we recently saw in two major battles in the Comunidad Valenciana, in Chiva and Castalla. Solar power generation, especially on a large scale, is also not always very environmentally friendly, since power used is not guaranteed to be exclusively from renewables. They do not, however, generate radioactive waste, and there is no danger of them exploding, point out the critics. 

The way things are going on the solar front, we can be certain that when the Cofrentes nuclear plant reaches the new end of its life in nine years, the entire concept will be so out of date that it will, finally, be closed down permanently. Until that happens, though, this argument is set to run and run.

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