The situation of Nuclear Power in Portugal: the current context and the future

An article prepared by Pedro Teles from the Instituto Superior Técnico, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal

As there are no nuclear power plants in the country, Portugal is not officially a ‘nuclear country’. Despite this, there is a lot of ‘nuclear’ in Portugal.

There is a 1 MW nuclear reactor in the country (the Portuguese Research Reactor – PRR at the Instituto Superior Técnico in Loures) [1], and a 2.8 Tesla tokamak (ISTTOK) [2] at the Instituto de Plasmas e Fusão Nuclear, both facilities belonging to IST. Also there are two cyclotrons in use for medical applications at the Instituto Português de Oncologia – Porto, and Instituto de Ciências Nucleares Aplicadas à Saúde. These facilities are perhaps the most emblematic examples of Nuclear Technology applications in the country.

These facilities connect to several research groups and private companies working in the fields of Nuclear Physics, Fusion Sciences, Accelerator Physics, Radiochemistry, Radiopharmaceutical Sciences, Radiation Protection, Medical Physics, Health Physics, in R&D, but also in medical, industrial, environmental, cultural heritage applications, and much more. Portuguese groups also take part in many important international projects in these areas [3,4]. It should be noted that the Portuguese Research Reactor (PRR) and its associated IST campus are at the core of this type of research [5].

This is evidence that, perhaps more importantly than being deemed a ‘nuclear country’, Portugal has a well-established ‘nuclear’ community, with extensive expertise and know-how, spread throughout universities, research centres, and private companies. This cumulates into a productivity of about 60 scientific papers/year listed at ISI, web of Knowledge in this field [6].

There are also the international commitments of the Portuguese State, in terms of Environmental Radioactivity, and Radiation Protection and Safety, of which IST is given technical competences [7]. These are ensured by groups of experts that presently work at high and well-established international standards. Also there is an independent commission on nuclear safety (the COMRSIN) [8], the goal of which is to ensure that all activities involving ionising radiation comply with international safety standards.

On top of this, IST has recently created a new department of Nuclear Engineering to form young students in these areas. This will hopefully help renovating this very specific working force with a new generation of skilled professionals.

With so much going on, one could ask, then, why has a nuclear power plant never been built in the country? This fact has historical reasons [9].

In the 1950s, the former Junta de Energia Nuclear (Portuguese Nuclear Energy Commission) was created. Within the framework of this institution, the Portuguese Research Reactor (PRR) was planned and built under the supervision of the then former Laboratório de Física e Engenharia Nucleares (LFEN) which had been created a few years earlier. All this happened under the umbrella of the Atoms for Peace programme created by the USA during the same time. The reactor reached criticality on the 25th of April of 1961 [10]. This could perhaps be called the birthdate of ‘nuclear’ in Portugal. Within the facilities of the Portuguese Research Reactor (PRR), in the following years, the research groups and activities mentioned in the previous paragraphs were born.

Throughout these early years after the creation of the PRR (1960s-1st half of the 1970s), enough knowledge and expertise was gathered, which, combined with a favourable political drive, had created enough momentum to inevitably lead to the construction of a nuclear power plant in Portugal. The location of this power plant would be Ferrel, a small village about 100 km north of Lisbon.

This momentum, however, came to a grinding halt during the second half of the 1970s. Following a then international trend, a very aggressive (at the time) anti-nuclear propaganda was used to convince the local population of the so-called dangers of nuclear power. The population of Ferrel marched against the installation of a nuclear site in 1976, which probably marked the end of these early ‘golden years’ of the nuclear sciences in Portugal.

Throughout the following decades, and Portugal’s European integration, there seemed to be no real political will to take such a project from the shelves. However, recently in the 2000s (although this happened before the European crisis, and the Fukushima incident), there were rumours in the press about private investors willing to build a nuclear power plant in the country. In 2012, a group of 50 Portuguese personalities lobbied in favour of this, including the President of the Republic, who at the time asked for a public debate on this topic [8].  Despite this fact, the debate has never really left the newspapers.

On the other hand, Portugal is a success story in terms of renewable power. Currently, about 47 % of the country’s produced electricity comes from renewable sources, which places the nation among the first in the world [8]. However, this makes electricity very expensive in the country [9],  and among the highest in the European Union, which is clearly prejudicial to the country’s economy.

Considering the current economic crisis and the need for investment, jobs, and, hopefully, a less expensive electricity – and going back to the title of this article – with such a well-established and successful ‘nuclear’ community, and the clear advantages of nuclear energy, the first of which being to generate ‘cheaper’ electricity, would it not be the time to consider the installation of a nuclear power plant in the country?

Which brings us to this great opportunity opened up by the Nuclear4climate initiative, and the possibility to raise awareness towards the great changes that are occurring in the global nuclear scene at the moment. Not only are there great economical advantages in choosing nuclear energy, but inevitably the debate will have to lead to its being the optimal choice in a country which has decided to go green, and has been a success story in green energy production.

With the skills, and the know-how, there only need to be private investment and political will to set this project going. A public debate could be started to launch a debate on the benefits of current nuclear technology, and how it has advanced and learned from previous mishaps. Besides the clear economic benefit [11], this is alas an opportunity to give significance and credit to the highly specialised nuclear community of the country, and finally, it can show the international community that nuclear power can be built safely and help to improve a country’s social wellbeing. Hopefully this can happen in the near future.

 

[1] The Portuguese Research Reactor: a tool for the next century A J G Ramalho, J Marques, F M Cardeira, International symposium on research reactor utilization, safety and management; Lisbon (Portugal);  1999;
[2] Role of the Tokamak ISTTOK on the EURATOM Fusion Programme H. Fernandes, C A F Varandas, J A C Cabral Brazilian Journal of Physics, 32 (1), 2002;
[3] Tecnologia portuguesa vai controlar a maior experiência de fusão nuclear do mundo Ciência Hoje 6th November 2012
[4] The FreYA project and ex-ITN’s participation in it  : http://freya.sckcen.be/en/Partnership/ITN
[5] Report of the “International Expert Group for the Portuguese Strategy of Non-Energy Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technologies”, Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (March 17, 2015)
[6] Data from ISI – Web of Knowledge (Thomson-Reuters), retrieved Sep 2015;
[7] Decree-Law  29/2012, 09.02.2015 (Portuguese Republic)
[8] Decree-Law  30/2012, 09.02.2015 (Portuguese Republic)
[9] Anatomy of a controversy: nuclear power in Portugal Ana Delicado, Tiago Santos Pereira, Stefania Barca, presentation within the project FCT/ HC/0063/2009): Portugal Nuclear: Física, Tecnologia, Medicina E Ambiente (1910-2010)
[10] O Reactor Nuclear Português, Fonte de Conhecimento, Jaime da Costa Oliveira, editora O Mirante, 2005
[11] Manifesto pede introdução da energia nuclear em Portugal, Diário de Notícias (1st February 2012)
[12] Eurostat data on renewables in Europe for 2012 (website: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/data/shares – visited Sep 2015)
[13]  Eurostat data on energy prices for the second half of year, 2012–14 (website: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Half-yearly_electricity_and_gas_prices,_second_half_of_year,_2012–14_(EUR_per_kWh)_YB15.png – visited Sep 2015)
[14] Nuclear: Prós e contras 25th May 2012 Notícias Magazine

Comments are closed.