Nuclear energy, whose main purpose is to generate electricity, is obtained from a nuclear reaction in which the nuclei of atoms are split apart and, in the process, liberate the heat necessary to turn turbine generators. The radioactive metallic element uranium, which undergoes a series of processing operations after being extracted through mining, is used as fuel in this process.
Of all the electricity in the world, the amount produced by nuclear power stations jumped from 0.1% to 17% in the past 30 years, which is close to the percentage generated by hydro-electric dams. In 2011, the global outlook on nuclear energy revealed that there were 434 nuclear reactors in operation and another 65 being built (ELETROBRAS, 2011). Currently, nuclear power plants produce 30% of the energy consumed in Europe (LUSA, 2012).
The current European framework on the production and consumption of nuclear energy began to be built in the 1950s. At the time, concerned with guaranteeing their autonomy in energy, the founding members of the European Economic Community (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) adopted a policy that favoured the development of nuclear power.
In March 1957, the treaty to create the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) was signed in Rome. The treaty established a set of legal measures to regulate atomic energy in Europe. Its main objectives are: foster the development of atomic energy for the benefit of Member States; ensure the security of supply (the concern here is related to the transportation of hazardous substances within Europe) and safety in the management of the toxic waste from nuclear facilities; and finally, guarantee strict control to ensure that nuclear materials for civil use are not diverted for military purposes (EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, 2015).
In Portugal, the discussion on the development of nuclear power dates to the 1940s, when the first Governmental Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created in 1947. The main reason for establishing this commission was the combination of the existence of uranium and shale gas reserves in the country, which are fundamental to produce nuclear energy, with Portugal’s energy deficit. The country does not have coal deposits nor major water resources.
In 1948, the government reforced his nuclear option by creating the Commission for Research on Uranium Use and in 1952, the Provisional Commission on Nuclear Energy Studies (CPEEN, for its acronym in Portuguese) was set up. In 1954, Portugal became a member of the European Atomic Energy Community and then, one year later, a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (SEMBLANO, 2014). The creation of and Portugal’s involvement in international organisations whose aim was to develop nuclear power was an indication of the desire of a certain sector of Portugal’s political elite to ensure the viability of nuclear energy production in the country.
In November 1974, during the Third Provisional Government, the development of nuclear power was identified as one of the national strategic objectives in the struggle for national energy autonomy (TAVARES, 2013). The groups in favour of nuclear energy defended it by promoting its advantages, namely reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, its abundance and low cost. The opposition, on the other hand, based its arguments on the risks of nuclear facilities, primarily their potential threat to public health and the environment.
It was against these risks that the population of Ferrel mobilised in 1974 and stopped the construction of a nuclear power plant in this region by destroying the initial foundations of the facility. This marked the beginning of a strong anti-nuclear movement in Portugal, which accompanied the post-April 1974 revolutionary period and its decline. The anti-nuclear struggle is considered the strongest popular environmental protest movement to have emerged in the country in the late 1970s. In this context, the mobilisations in Ferrel came to be seen as part of the fight for clean and renewable energy alternatives (RODRIGUES, 1995).
It was also in the 1970s that several anti-nuclear movements emerged in Western European countries, such as France, the UK, Denmark and Spain, among others (DELICADO et al, 2013). In Spain, the construction of the Moral de Sayago nuclear plant was interrupted shortly after it began in the late 1970s. The construction was suspended when the socialist government came to office and imposed the nuclear moratorium in 1984, but also due to the facility’s proximity to the Douro region, which is now a natural park (PUEBLOS DE SAYAGO, 2014).
In Portugal, the Ferrel case not only stimulated environmental struggles and the founding of national environmentalist associations such as Movimento Ecológico Português (MEP, the Portuguese ecological movement), but also raised the debate on nuclear power to the national level, where it dominated during the 1976-1983 period.
Environmental discourse had a more explicitly political stance and during the decline of the grassroots movements, the first ecologist political party emerged. The Ecologist Party – The Greens (Partido Ecologista Os Verdes, PEV) was founded in 1982 (FIGUEIREDO and FIDÉLIS, 2003). The issues raised called into question the fundamental values related to technoscience and generated reflections on the fact that technological innovations have social and political implications, as they involve choices on the kind of lifestyle and society we want (SCHMIDT, 2008; SOROMENHO-MARQUES, 2005). This led to discussions on not only the energy problem, but also the alternatives and, in relation to nuclear energy, on the problems of radioactive waste, environmental degradation and even on hunger. It was argued that the latter should be treated a priority, rather than spending resources on nuclear energy (DOMINGUES, 1978).
In 2006, on the 30th anniversary of the protest in Ferrel, activities were organised to pay homage to the people of Ferrel and to reaffirm opposition to nuclear power plants in Portugal and the need to give priority to alternative and renewable sources. Organised by the Peniche City Hall, the Ferrel Parish Council and the Stop Uranium Coalition, this event brought together citizens, associations and institutions. Municipal representatives, environmentalists, participants in the first protest and the residents of Ferrel attended the event (PÚBLICO, 2006).
This configuration was strengthened by the results of a survey by the Portuguese Energy Association (APE), released in 2011, that indicated that 70% of the Portuguese population was against the construction of nuclear power plants in the country, as they associate nuclear energy to health and safety risks (PAJ, 2011).
However, in Europe – namely Switzerland and Ukraine – there are 151 atomic power plants in operation, of which 66 reactors have been operating for over 30 years and 25, for more than 35 years (TERRA, 2014). A report published in 2014 by Greenpeace on the future of nuclear power in Europe noted an increase in the energy produced from nuclear sources, which involves extending the lifespan of nuclear reactors. According to the Greenpeace specialist on nuclear power, a reactor has a lifespan of 30 years; beyond this period, the reactor becomes a threat to public safety (TERRA, 2014).
Disasters in recent decades have heated up the debate and led some countries to take a step back on the issue. The biggest disasters were the accident in the nuclear generating station on the Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 and the most recent one in the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011 (QUERCUS, 2013).
After the Fukushima incident, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group recommended that all member countries with nuclear facilities carry out stress tests to verify the safety of nuclear stations in relation to the risks of external hazards, risks in the case of nuclear accidents and the adequacy of external crisis management systems (QUERCUS, 2013).
The 1998 protests led by the local population and neighbouring municipalities against the Spanish government’s plans to install a nuclear waste dump in the region of Aldeadávila de La Ribera, in the Douro River basin close to the Portuguese border, are also worth highlighting. Similarly, people, politicians and environmental associations from Portugal joined forces with the anti-nuclear movements in Spain to demand the closure and to question the safety of the Almaraz nuclear power plant built 100 km from the border with Portugal on the banks of the Tagus River. In these protests, the case of Ferrel is often mentioned.
The EU Nuclear Safety Directive was made legally binding in order to guarantee the safety of all nuclear facilities in Europe; the deadline for its implementation was July 22, 2011. Even though the directive’s new measures guarantee each Member State’s freedom to produce nuclear energy, they establish more rigorous technical controls on this production. Regular inspections must be carried out at existing nuclear stations by specialists from other European countries (LUSA, 2013). While Portugal’s position has typically been against nuclear energy, its neighbour, Spain, invested heavily in the development of this kind of energy production after World War II. Both countries laid their bets on the potential for uranium production as a way of compensating for their lack of scientific and economic capacity to develop nuclear energy (GASPAR, 2010). Spain advanced in this area and, despite the absence of nuclear stations in Portugal, the issues of the maintenance and lifespan of the nuclear facilities built on the borders and the disposal of nuclear waste have generated transborder conflicts in which the Portuguese have joined the protests of the population in the neighbouring country and vice versa.
These were the issues that led to the discussion on the need for an Iberian solution to the nuclear energy issue in Portugal during the 2008 Physics Conference at the Faculty of Science and Technology of the NOVA University Lisbon (FCT/UNL for its acronym in Portuguese), by those who support its development. This was justified by the inexistence of highly qualified human resources in the country, which are indispensable for this kind of project, and the high costs related to the safety systems that would have to be implemented if a nuclear plant were to be built.
At the time, university professor and environmentalist leader João Joanaz de Melo emphasised that this is a much broader issue, as it includes the problems caused by the mining of the mineral used to produce nuclear power and the grave situation in and around the deactivated uranium mines in Urgeiriça, Viseu, where high levels of radioactivity are still found (ABREU, 2008).
The Associação Nacional de Conservação da Natureza-Quercus (National nature conservation association) drew attention to the fact that the nuclear issue is not limited to the moment when it is produced. In fact, the nuclear energy cycle begins with uranium mining, which generates important negative impacts (QUERCUS, 2013). There are also other problems related to the functioning and the wear of the infrastructure of nuclear power facilities.
Even though the anti-nuclear movement is consolidated in Portugal and there are still no nuclear stations in the country, conflicting positions exist in the debate on the production of nuclear power in the country exist. This is fuelled by the chronic energy deficit and the high cost of electricity, as revealed in 2012 by the elaboration of a manifesto demanding that nuclear energy be introduced to Portugal (LUSA, 2012).
In 2017, there were only a few countries that continued to build reactors – such as China, India, Russia and South Korea. Elsewhere, great effort is being made to keep existing reactors running and replace old ones that are about to reach the end of their lifespan. The State of New York decided to strongly subsidise the nuclear sector to keep two reactors functioning, arguing that the subsidy is the “social cost of the carbon” that would be emitted if the reactors were to shut down. However, as the costs of producing nuclear energy are about to increase and those of other renewable energy sources (such as biomass and wind power) will decline, it is likely that this issue will be resolved by economic factors that will eventually lead countries to abandon the nuclear alternative (GOLDENBERG, 2016).
In February 2017, the government announced an investment of over 800 million euros in renewable energies projects. According to a study by the European Commission, in 2015, Portugal had the seventh largest share of renewable energies in the European Union. This confirms that the proportion of energy from renewable sources has constantly increased since 2013 (25.7% of gross final energy consumption) – the year in which the target of having at least 20% of energy made from renewable sources by 2020 had already been met (LUSA, 2017).
On February 9, 2017, the explosion in the nuclear power plant in Flamanville, France revived the debate on nuclear safety in Europe. The accident could serve as grounds in Portugal’s dispute with Spain on the new nuclear waste storage facility in Almaraz (BANDEIRA, 2017).
Portugal is surrounded by territories surrendered to nuclear power. However, the coordinator of the Energy Systems Unit of INESC Porto affirms that nuclear energy “has no place in the Portuguese power system”. During a debate organised in March 2017 by a newspaper from Porto with various speakers on the issue, Dr. Pedro Cosme, author of a study on the viability of nuclear power in Portugal, explained that the problem in the country now is excess capacity due to investments in wind energy. The former State Secretary of Energy of the Santana Lopes administration and defender of nuclear power also agrees that currently, Portugal does not have the financial conditions nor the market for a nuclear power plant.
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June 30, 2017.
Nuclear energy uses uranium, a radioactive metallic element, as fuel to produce electricity. In Europe, nuclear power plants are responsible for 30% of energy consumption. In Portugal, international organisations seeking to develop nuclear power attempted to initiate the production of this kind of energy in the country. The population of Ferrel mobilised in 1974 and halted the construction of a nuclear power station in this region. This marked the beginning of a powerful anti-nuclear movement in Portugal, which continues to be strong today.