“The future of electricity in Europe is renewable and nuclear"
Luis Echávarri, former General Director of NEA/OCDE, is currently a consultant for large nuclear industry companies in Japan and Russia. He assures that “the future of electricity in Europe is renewable and nuclear.” He considers that “true and objective information is fundamental so that society will understand the importance of an energy source of energy that is basically technological and practically inexhaustible, as well as essential in the fight against climate change and with reasonable electricity fees.”
"A rational energy policy must follow the basic principles of diversification, competitivity and environmental protection, and nuclear energy responds very well to these principles"
You declared that you cannot isolate nuclear energy from energy policies. Do you think there was a tendency to do this?
A rational energy policy must follow the basic principles of diversification, competitivity and environmental protection, and nuclear energy responds very well to these principles. However, in many occasions there was an attempt to dismiss it beforehand for reasons that were never clear, since the Spanish experience is very positive and our country’s nuclear power plants adhere to the highest safety standards. On the other hand, in our current situation with very high electric fees and the fight against climate change, nuclear power is becoming increasingly important because it is competitive and does not emit greenhouse effect gases. The European Commission just reaffirmed that the future of electricity in Europe is in nuclear as a solid energy source, and in renewables.
Do you consider that energy planification must be a matter addressed by the State?
Certainly. Energy is essential for the economic and social development of our societies, and its global planning should be based on a State Treaty that responds to these objectives of diversification, competitivity and environmental protection. It is a mistake to have an ideological vision of energy and demonize some of its sources, especially nuclear. It is ingenuous to pretend to be the most advanced in the fight against climate change and spend disproportionate subsidies, when this is a global problem and Spanish emissions are a fraction of the total emissions. On the other hand, it is a contradiction to say that the fight against climate change is an absolute priority and at the same time pretend to shut down nuclear power plants. There must be less apparent ideologies and more rationality.
"The support I always received from all the member countries and General Secretariats at the OCDE has been extraordinary, which I am very thankful for"
For 17 years you led the Nuclear Energy Agency at NEA/OCDE, until your retirement at the end of 2014. What memories and experiences did you take with you?
This international experience, with an excellent team of cooperators from many countries, was very positive both from the professional and human points of view. The most important thing was to have witness that the world is very large, that the problems we face are the same everywhere and that tackling them together benefits everyone. On the other hand, the support I always received from all the member countries and General Secretariats at the OCDE has been extraordinary, which I am very thankful for.
What are this organization’s objectives?
As part of the OCDE, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) works to make the best practices and experiences in nuclear power available to everyone, to develop this energy in a cleaner, safer manner. NEA dedicates most of his effort to nuclear safety in all its aspects, both technical and legal, and makes the common vision of countries that are further ahead in this matter available to all. Additionally, the Agency publishes articles on economy and the technological development of nuclear power. These articles are world references.
What were your priorities during your almost twenty years in the Agency?
There are a few issues that were of special priority to me: to follow the guidelines and criteria set out by the OCDE, an organization of enormous prestige thanks to its objective recommendations to countries for a balanced and dynamic economic and social development; to encourage cooperation with the International Energy Agency (IEA) as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); to respond to the real needs of member states via a continuous relationship with them; to boost all areas related to safety and nuclear regulation; to develop the Agency’s relationship with non-member states essential in the nuclear field: Russia, China and India; to make NEA the Technical Secretariat of new international initiatives launched by the United States; Generation IV (new reactors), MDEP (Multinational Design Evaluation Program) and IFNEC (International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation), development of nuclear infrastructure for new countries; to boost studies on economy and the contribution of nuclear power to the fight against climate change, as well as to analyze the implications of the Fukushima accident for all countries. We were the first international organization to publish a report on lessons learned, led by Javier Reig.
"It is very interesting to be in contact with important projects being developed in countries like Japan or Russia"
How is your current job as international consultant in nuclear and energy issues?
It is very interesting to be in contact with important projects being developed in countries like Japan or Russia. In Japan, as international consultant for the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID) I cooperate in the management for the development of the technology and the robots necessary to extract the molten fuel from the Fukushima reactors, the most important challenge for the total decommissioning of the plant. I am president of ROSATOM’s International Expert Board, which gives counsels this company throughout its globalization process for its transformation from a Ministry to a true multinational. ROSATOM has become the world’s biggest nuclear technology exporter, with 25 plants of new construction in nine countries, where they supply goods and services in the entire nuclear cycle. To advise a company with 260 000 employees and 400 entities, and with a large nuclear experience, is also a very attractive challenge.
You were a counselor at the Nuclear Safety Council in Spain (CSN) from 1987 to 1994. How would you value these years?
Since 1985 I was the Council’s Technical Director, and participated in the organization and development of the Technical Directorate and the licensing of nuclear power plants in operation. This gave me a very clear vision of the Council’s function. As counselor I also had a very clear vision of the political process that goes along with the State’s function in nuclear matters, and of the importance of the collective management in the decision making on nuclear safety. To me it was very important to cooperate in the consolidation of the Council as the objective reference of Spanish society to ensure that our country’s nuclear power plants comply with the strictest safety requisites from the most advanced countries in nuclear power, which follow the nuclear recommendations and standards from international organizations, such as IAEA and NEA/OCDE.
"True and objective information is fundamental so that society will understand the importance of an energy source of energy that is basically technological"
You were also General Director of the Spanish Nuclear Industry Forum from 1995 to 1997. You created the communication department following the vision you already had back then on the importance of communication. Do you believe the nuclear sector did not properly explain the benefits of nuclear energy?
Yes, indeed. I believe that true and objective information is fundamental so that society will understand the importance of an energy source of energy that is basically technological and practically inexhaustible, as well as essential in the fight against climate change and with reasonable electricity fees.
The past, present and future role of nuclear power is crucial for economic and social development, and it is necessary to inform society. As an industry representative, the Spanish Nuclear Industry Forum plays a very important role in communication, but it should not be the only one. Perhaps the nuclear sector did not know how to communicate well enough, but I believe the problem was more complex than that; the Spanish political sector was never a great promotor of technologies, not just nuclear. They do not realize that countries with significant economic and social development are technological leaders. Spain’s administrative of expansion and the “let them invent” attitude caused quite an irreparable damage to our country.
From your international experience, why do you believe there are societies that favor nuclear power more than others?
I believe that the perception of the importance of technology and a good social articulation differs from some countries to others, and is fundamental to a wide social acceptance. The political consensus of a clear majority is necessary in order to develop nuclear power and a nuclear program cannot be decided by 50% of votes in Parliament, it needs a strong majority that guarantees the long-term consistency of the energy policy. An example very close to us is France. Although there was some debate, both the right and left wing parties always defended the importance of nuclear power plants for the country. We must work to reach a political consensus for a reasonable energy policy.
"As soon as Europe gets out of this crisis, and if there is not another one, electric demand will grow and the opportunity to build new nuclear power plants will appear in a natural way"
How do you see the future of nuclear power in our country? and in Europe?
Nuclear power is a reality in our country. It produces 20% of electric generation, and 25% in the European Union. I believe that in the future it will continue to be an essential energy. As I said before, the European Commission has reiterated that the future of electricity in Europe is in renewables and nuclear sources. Europe is coming out of a large economic crisis where the demand of electricity has not grown excessively. As soon as Europe gets out of this crisis, and if there is not another one, electric demand will grow and the opportunity to build new nuclear power plants will appear in a natural way. In our country, I hope nuclear power plants currently in operation complete their lifespan, which is currently 60 years. The technologies we have already have licenses in the United States to complete this period. Spain has enough installed electric capacity, but in a few years, if we go into a high-growth period, the need for new nuclear power plants, even if we don’t see it today, will appear.
Do you consider that the nuclear expansion will continue to center on Asia?
The situation in Asia, with a great population and a large economic growth—excepting the Gulf, where there is a big lack of energy resources—will continue, in my opinion, centering nuclear expansion for the next few decades. This does not mean there is not a certain growth in Europe and—to a lesser scale—in Africa and South America. In these two continents, although they need nuclear power, the weak political stability in many countries and the lack of enough financial resources highly limit the possibility of a significant nuclear expansion.
"I would like to stress the importance of the human factor in the nuclear development"
Would you like to add anything?
I would like to stress the importance of the human factor in the nuclear development. The commitment of our societies with ongoing management of operating nuclear power plants and their subsequent decommissioning and waste management implies the need to train enough technicians for the future. We must attract scientists and technicians to the various nuclear specialties, provide the right training and let them participate in the development of new nuclear technology. I believe we should also set down the basis to develop this human factor in order to be able to develop a new nuclear program in the future without losing the experience acquired after so many years. It would be a disaster to lose the companies and first-rate organizations that have developed skills in this technological field: operators, engineering companies, manufacturers, service, waste management and safety companies, and go back to the beginning.