Mission Cofrentes17: Saving the environment is our duty and our right

A month before the Fukushima catastrophe began in 2011, Greenpeace activists occupied one of Cofrentes' cooling towers and painted "Peligro Nuclear" on its side: Nuclear Danger.

On 28 November, dozens of academics and people from Spain's environmental movement gathered for a seminar at the University of Valencia. They were there to discuss the background to the 2011 protest against the life-time extension of the aging Spanish Cofrentes nuclear power station.

Greenpeace activists climb one of the cooling towers at the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant. 02/15/2011 © Mario Gomez / GreenpeaceGreenpeace activists climb one of the cooling towers at the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant (02/15/2011 © Mario Gomez / Greenpeace)

This week, those activists and one independent photographer will stand trial in Valencia and face charges which could lead to heavy prison sentences and crippling financial penalties.

During the seminar, maybe the most interesting stories came from people who were involved in the critical movement against General Franco's nuclear programme in the 1970s which formed the basis for Spain's current nuclear activities.

The Cofrentes 17 are part of one of the strongest and most successful anti-nuclear movements in Europe. The main themes have remained scarily the same over the four decades of Spain's nuclear programme: a lack of transparency, heavy suppression of criticism, corruption, the cutting of corners in nuclear safety, and confusion around the issue of nuclear waste.

Nevertheless, the Spanish people were able to shut down, or cancel plans for, 27 nuclear reactors. Only seven remain in operation today.

At the seminar, nuclear consultant Yves Marignac commented:

Compare that with the one nuclear reactor out of 60 that the French anti-nuclear movement was able to prevent.

Three of these 27 were operational reactors, five of them were reactors under construction and 19 were at serious planning stages. Even more astonishing is that most of these projects were cancelled before 1975 when General Franco was still in power.

It is in this tradition that the Cofrentes 17 brought attention to the risks of Spain's ageing nuclear fleet. One of its reactors at Garoña is the second oldest reactor in Europe and already shut down, but the current government wants to restart it.

Four of the seven remaining reactors are older than 30 years and face an increasing number of small incidents like leakages of cooling water which indicate the progression of their ageing and their increasing risk. On the other hand, Spain’s seemingly unstoppable renewable energy growth is currently under attack because the main operators of these reactors fear for their market share and want to continue to squeeze profits out of obsolete nuclear power.

Why would you want to stick with these ageing nuclear reactors, with all the attached risks and a growing nuclear waste problem, when the reality on the ground has already shown that Spain can easily and affordably run an electricity system with 100% renewables?

It was brave and prophetic of the Cofrentes 17 to show the threat that Spain's ageing nuclear fleet is posing to its Energy [R]evolution. The Fukushima catastrophe a month later illustrated the urgency of their pledge. The stress tests the European Union conducted on its reactors in the aftermath of the disaster confirmed a list of flaws including crucial ones like missing filtering of vents and insufficient flooding protection. The lack of urgency from Spain's Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) in demanding safety upgrades shows the lack of priority for nuclear safety in the system.

To bring attention to this worrying situation is not a crime, it is a civil duty.

Jan Haverkamp is nuclear expert consultant at Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe