“Nuclear energy is the perfect complement to the deployment of renewable energy sources”
Manuel Fernández Ordóñez has a degree in Particle Physics and a doctorate in Nuclear Physics from the University of Santiago de Compostela. This expert on nuclear energy and energy analyst is also a communicator and has written the books Nucleares: Sí, por favor (Yes to nuclear, please) (Publisher: Deusto) and En Busca de la Libertad (Searching for freedom) (Publisher: Gaveta). Currently he is Business Development Director for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning at Tecnatom, a Spanish engineering company. In this interview with Foro Nuclear he states that “we cannot do without nuclear energy”, and that Spain is falling behind in its anti-nuclear strategy.
"Nucleares sí, por favor". Why did you decide to write this book now?
I thought it was the right time, because in the past year and a half the international energy situation made societies wake up from their slumber. It made us realize that energy, the fundamental basis of our well-being, was in the hands of third-party countries that we were incredibly dependent on. This book is the natural extension of the communication work I have been doing for so many years.
Were you expecting such a large repercussion?
The truth is that it was a great surprise. I was not expecting this repercussion nor all the media resonance; all the large national media outlets have mentioned it. For such a specific and specialized topic, we found it very surprising.
Do you think the nuclear sector and professionals have remained quiet for too long?
Historically speaking, the sector has remained very quiet, but in the past few years pronuclear voices are making themselves heard, gaining the prominence and relevance they should have always had. It is true that, historically, the industry gave up on using its voice and taking its spaces of dialogue, which were occupied by other arguments. We are slowly claiming them back.
"Pronuclear voices are making themselves heard, gaining the prominence and relevance they should have always had"
Nuclear disseminators, pronuclear manifestos from professionals, books on nuclear energy, movies, documentaries… have we lost our fear?
I think us nuclear professionals were never afraid of saying that nuclear energy is necessary; the problem is that no one listened to us. It was a debate that society was not prepared for, simply because in advanced countries energy was considered a commodity, basically a right. We thought we were always going to have energy and that it was always going to be cheap, until we realized we were wrong. Now society is demanding information to understand what is going on, why the prices are so high, why is supply at risk and why we depend on third-party countries… these are aspects we were not fully aware of.
“As defenders of nuclear energy, now we have more repercussion”
The voices that defended nuclear energy were always there. We now have more repercussions and popularity, but we have been informing for a long time. It’s not like we just appeared on the scene.
“Spain is falling behind because of our antinuclear stance”
Do you think Spain is falling behind because of its current unwillingness to embrace nuclear energy ?
Certainly. Of the thirteen countries in the European Union with nuclear power plants, all but two have made an alliance. A pronuclear alliance led by France is being established, and only Spain and Germany have opted out. We are falling behind in our hooligan-like nuclear stance.
As an energy analyst, what combination of sources do you find interesting for Spain in the mid- and long-term?
We need a mix that guarantees supply, because no one in an advanced country will be willing to do without an electricity supply 24/7. First of all we need to ensure our supply, as I mentioned. Secondly, we will have to do it in a competitive way. And thirdly, we will need to do it in an environment-friendly way. We are speaking of a triangle with three equally important vertices.
To guarantee supply you need baseload power, which is either nuclear or gas. You also need a very high penetration of renewables, according to the politics we are currently implementing. These politics are correct and accurate, and we need to keep persevering. But with the technologies currently in the market right now, renewables will not make the cut on their own.
Also, this technology needs to be competitive. If we compare a technology for baseload production, which can only be nuclear or gas, and include the ingredients of competitivity and no greenhouse effect emissions, we automatically discard gas. This leaves us with just one ingredient which is nuclear energy, the perfect complement to the implantation of renewable energies.
In fact, in your book you mention the nuclear and renewables binomial.
The commitment to renewables is unstoppable. This is a worldwide commitment; it is more intense in some countries than others depending on their own energy characteristics and their economic and investment capacities, but investment in renewables will continue to show an intense increase every year.
“Nuclear energy in Europe is still producing 25% of the electricity and 50% of emissions-free electricity”
The reality is that nuclear energy in Spain is still producing 25% of electricity and 50% of emissions-free electricity, and this is something we cannot overlook. If we are looking at a CO2-free energy transition scenario and we are moving towards energy systems that do not emit CO2, and especially if we are moving towards intense electrification of the economy, we cannot forego nuclear energy. The binomial exists with renewable energies, nuclear energy in all its variables and any new technologies incorporated as technological developments mature.
In your book you also mention “energy mistakes such as Germany’s”. Why?
After the Fukushima accident, Germany made a decision that was fundamentally an electoral strategy: it decided to launch an agenda for the shutdown of its nuclear power plants and tried to convince us that the German Government would manage to develop and massively deploy renewable energies that would be able to replace not just nuclear energy but also fossil fuels. We are seeing that the reality in Germany is a complete failure, since the shutdown of nuclear power plants has burdened them with enormous external dependence.
“The shutdown of German nuclear power plants is a complete failure, which has burdened them with enormous external dependence”
You also dispel some myths regarding nuclear energy. Can you list a few?
In the book I dispel the myth that nuclear power plants cause cancer to those living in their vicinity; this is false, as shown by epidemiological studies. I dispel the myth that uranium will run out and there will be no nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants in the future. I also dispel the myth that there were nearly 20,000 deaths in Fukushima because of the nuclear accident when there were none; or the myth that Chernobyl is a nuclear desert when it is just the contrary: it features a spectacular biodiversity, especially since humans disappeared from the area.
I also dispel the myth that there is no solution to radioactive waste and that the nuclear industry does not pay for its management. The nuclear industry does cover the cost of its waste as indicated by Spanish legislation, and it scrupulously complies with the law.
“In my book I dispel the myth that there is no solution for radioactive waste”
In some of your interviews your claimed that “nuclear professionals are the true climate heroes”. Have you been critiziced or praised for saying this?
I don’t know if I have received a lot of criticism or not, but it is true that we nuclear professionals are the true climate heroes. Why? Because nuclear energy is the only source that has proven its ability to cause a quick and massive reduction of greenhouse effect gases. We are seeing countries reducing their greenhouse effect gas emissions with renewable energies, but they do this much more gradually.
“Nuclear energy is the only source that has proven it can cause a quick and massive reduction of greenhouse effect gases”
In a few words, echoing your book’s subtitle: “Why is nuclear energy the energy of the future?”
First, because it is a present energy. In Europe, as I mentioned, 25% of the electricity comes from nuclear sources, but there are countries such as France where the percentage is over 70%. Nuclear is very present in the international electricity mix of developed countries, and it is an energy source we cannot do without. Since we cannot do without it, it will be a future energy.
“Nuclear is a present and future energy”
And secondly, because of the life extension for our already existing nuclear power plants. In the United States, with nuclear reactors whose technology is analogous to that of Spanish reactors, practically all nuclear power plants have a license to operate 60 years, a few can operate 80 years and many more are requesting extensions. Thus, there is no technical limit preventing nuclear power plants from operating beyond 80 years
“There is no technical limit preventing nuclear power plants from operating beyond 80 years”
We are also experiencing a technological revolution in nuclear energy. Many countries are building new reactors and starting to adopt new technologies of small modular reactors (SMR). SMRs are not exclusively restricted to the production of electricity; they also produce hydrogen, desalinate water, serve as heat sources for industrial use, produce synthetic fuels…. They have a wide range of uses that will help to decarbonize economies.
Do you believe we are living a global nuclear renaissance?
Yes. Right now there are over 70 SMR designs of various technologies on the table. There is an infinity of designs with multiple uses, and countries are starting to embrace them. The United States signed several SMR build contracts and so did the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Canada, China, Russia, Japan… they are all developing nuclear technology. In Spain we are falling behind, and if we let this ship sail we will pay the price in the future.
You lead the department of business development for waste management, an issue that concerns the population. What could you tell us about their volume, management and safety?
Waste is a consequence of the operation of nuclear power plants, but we have a few things to say regarding radioactive waste. The first one is that, thanks to the enormous energy density of nuclear energy, the volume of waste generated is very small. To give you an idea, all the radioactive waste that a person from a Western developed country like Spain can consume throughout their life (around eighty years), can fit into a glass of water. That is the volume of waste generated. Thus, the volume of waste from all the Spanish nuclear plants is very small and very easily manageable.
“The volume of waste from all the Spanish nuclear power plants is very small and very easily manageable”
As to radiation, it is a phenomenon that we have known about for over a century. We have developed the technology and techniques to adequately manage this waste. For instance, in Spain and other countries radioactive waste has never caused any accident or incident with any type of damage. Narratives that claim radioactive waste to be dangerous are not based on any objective data and are not supported by science or reality. They are part of an antinuclear stance, a political and ideological agenda.
What is a normal day for you in Tecnatom, and whare projects are you working on nationally and internationally?
As a company, Tecnatom is still very focused on servicing Spanish nuclear power plants. We have worked in all areas of these sites from the beginning of the Spanish nuclear program. We are also continuing our intense international work project supporting several nuclear programs around the world, and we are involved in new nuclear reactor design projects such as SMRs and fusion through ITER. We also diversify to other sectors that are not exclusively nuclear, such as renewables and aerospace.
Apart from this, the new joint stage that has begun with Westinghouse will allow us to explore our synergies and enhance the portfolio with which we support our clients.
Back to Manuel Fernández Ordóñez the informer. What other surprises have you prepared?
Now comes a calm period to rest and see what new projects I will be tackling. I will continue to inform on social networks, write in my newspaper columns, participate in conferences and try to listen to all the people that contact me. I get a lot of requests to communicate in YouTube channels, and to give talks in high schools and universities.
“When people have more information on nuclear energy, their position is more favorable”
What we are seeing is that people are demanding information, and Spanish public opinion is changing regarding nuclear energy. The latest polls are proof of this, and we believe that the work of dissemination somehow contributes to that. One thing we see in the polls is that when people have more information about nuclear energy their position is more favorable, and for this reason we need to continue along this path.
Could you define nuclear energy in three words?
Clean, safe and magical.
Lastly, what would you like to add?
Even though in Spain we are falling behind in our antinuclear stance, I think that the windows opening to future nuclear energy contemplate spectacular technological developments. The Spanish industry is and will be present in these developments, and if the Spanish government cannot see their added value we will miss an opportunity that others will take whilst at the same time reaching their climate goals and reducing their emissions more easily. If we do not do the same it will be because we don’t want to, not because we can’t.