Exit 30 years ago: how Italy is doing without nuclear power

After the Chernobyl reactor disaster, Italy abandoned nuclear power and renewable energies are on the rise. There is a catch, but there is also a departure.

In fact, the Italian government – unlike those in Vienna, Paris or Berlin – wanted to stay out of the European discussion on nuclear energy. Then the subject would probably have quickly disappeared from the media. It was like that a few months ago, when Roberto Cingolani, Minister of Digital and Ecological Transition, indirectly spoke out in favor of a return to nuclear power.

But the leader of the right-wing Lega party discovered the subject on his own. Not a day goes by without Matteo Salvini proclaiming his nuclear creed in front of the cameras or on Facebook. He demands that Italy go back to nuclear power.

The debate was fueled on New Year’s Eve by the European Commission when it published a document proposing to include nuclear energy and natural gas in the “taxonomy”, the European classification system for sustainable energy sources. . The final decision will be made next Tuesday. To stop the proposal, a no would have to come from 20 of the 27 member states representing at least 65% of the EU’s population – an unlikely scenario.

Can we do without nuclear power plants? “Yes”, answers the nuclear promoter

Among the G7 countries, the seven largest industrial countries, Italy is the only one not to have its own nuclear power plants. The country has not produced nuclear energy for more than 30 years. Shutting down the reactors was decided in a referendum in 1987, a year and a half after the Chernobyl disaster, and implemented in 1990. In 2011, another referendum confirmed the result at the time.

Since then, Italy’s energy supply has consisted of a mixture of natural gas, oil, hydroelectricity and other renewable energies. A blackout, which proponents of nuclear power in Germany have portrayed for years as a threatening scenario, has happened only once. It was September 28, 2003, when at 3:37 a.m. the electricity went out across the country. Some areas, mostly in the south, went without power for 24 hours. The cause of the power outage has never been fully clarified. The most likely explanation is that in Switzerland a tree fell on power lines that also supplied Italy, causing a chain reaction.

It is also possible without nuclear power plants, say the opponents of nuclear power. “I would answer with a ‘Yes'”, Davide Tabarelli, on the other hand, answers a corresponding question in an interview with ntv.de. A professor in the Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental and Materials Engineering at the University of Bologna, he is also a nuclear promoter and president of Nomisma Energia, a research company in the field of energy and the environment. “Italy never really got into nuclear power. That’s why we learned to do without nuclear energy that we produce ourselves.” In 1986, there were only two reactors in working order and one very old. A new one was under construction.

Without gas imports, the light would go out

The fact that Italy can do without its own nuclear power plants does not mean “that we have a more efficient and sustainable energy system”, believes Tabarelli. Because unlike Germany, which exports more electricity than it imports, Italy is dependent on electricity imports. “We import around 15%, mainly from France and therefore produced from nuclear energy,” explains Tabarelli. And anyway, without the French reactors and those elsewhere in Europe, the whole continent would remain in the dark, the professor is convinced of that.

However, Italy is not solely dependent on electricity imports. According to a document from the Italian Ministry of Economy, the country is 75% dependent on imported energy sources. Among them, natural gas, which is used for electricity, industry and heating, is the most important source of energy. Of the 75.95 billion cubic meters of natural gas consumed in 2019, 7% came from domestic production and the remaining 93% was imported. “And that doesn’t just make us incredibly weak in terms of supply,” Tabarelli says. Italy does not only get natural gas from Russia, but also from Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan and even from the North Sea, “but given the geopolitical tensions – in other words: Russia – we could easily become a pawn,” says Tabarelli.

Angelo Tartaglia, professor of physics at the Faculty of Engineering of the Polytechnic of Turin, has another point of view on the subject. “We have to use less energy”, he says first, and that the constant growth in energy consumption is “a chimera”. He thinks the EU’s intention to classify nuclear energy and natural gas as sustainable is anachronistic, “as are Minister Cingolani’s considerations on drilling natural gas again. That way we would be falling behind instead of moving forward.

Something is moving

Indeed, Italy has natural gas deposits, albeit modest, in the Po Valley, in the region of Basilicata and in the Adriatic Sea. It is about 90 billion cubic meters. There are conveyor systems, but they have been inactive for a long time.

“Of course, you can’t turn off everything that emits CO2 overnight,” admits Tartaglia. But that does not mean that we have to fall back into old structures, especially in a region like the Po Valley, which is one of the most contaminated in Europe. “Italy has made huge progress in the production of renewable energy over the past 15 years. We now cover 9% of national demand with it. We must continue because we could easily produce twice as much.” (The 9% are wind energy, photovoltaics, energy from biomass and geothermal energy; if we include hydroelectricity, Italy reaches a renewable energy share of 25%).

The so-called energy communities could make an important contribution, ie communities that produce their own energy needs. Where Italy still has some catching up to do in a European comparison. There are currently twelve energy communities, all located in the North. But something is moving. Of the 60 billion euros that the National Reconstruction Plan provides for energy transition, 23.78 billion euros are intended for renewable energies, including 2.2 billion euros for energy communities. “In addition, in mid-December the law regulating communities came into force,” adds Tartaglia. Over the next five years, the number of energy communities could reach 40,000, benefiting 1.2 million families, 200,000 offices and 10,000 small and medium-sized businesses, according to a study by the Politecnico University of Applied Sciences of Milan. .

“That must be our goal,” Tartaglia said. For him, the taxonomy proposed by the European Commission is only “greenwashing”, the ecological embellishment of unsustainable energies. Tartaglia quotes the famous phrase from the book “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything must change”.

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