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Nuclear energy: An Alternative to Russian Gas?

The major problem is how to replace the percentage of electricity continually generated by fossil fuels and, above all, by Russian gas and gas in general. In recent years, the share produced from renewable sources has grown in Italy, but the thermoelectric has remained high and stable. While the debate on nuclear power is reopening in Italy, Macron’s France and many other European countries have no doubts that nuclear power is a resource for transition and self-sufficiency with green energy sources. Therefore, energy cooperation can be a concrete testing ground for Europe.

Introduction

The more urgent hardship for European countries is how to substitute the electricity produced with the gas in the shortest possible time, which is essential for everyday life and productive energy-hungry systems like the Italian one without interruptions or blackouts, to a complete detachment from Russian gas. 

For now, after over three months of the war, Russian gas still flows continuously between the bloody Ukrainian territories, and the so precious pipeline was never damaged. Moreover, to this day, Russian gas has continued to supply electricity generation for European manufacturing systems, such as Germany and Italy.[1]

For this reason, it is difficult to replace the gas-generated electricity quota. Italy will be self-sufficient perhaps in 2024, only starting just from now to diversify gas supplies,[2] from Algeria (Transmed) and Azerbaijan (TAP), especially. In the meantime, German trade unions[3] have warned of the socio-economic risks of a complete detachment from Russian gas.

On the other hand, in the face of growing starvation, unsustainable gas prices, and underperforming alternatives, electricity needs have been increasing due to digitalization and the green transition goal (electric mobility), but also, during and after the pandemic, for healthcare. So how to sustain an at least stable demand with increasingly rationed resources? 

This scenario of scarcity forces European countries to start an all-comprehensive energy strategy: change of sources of electricity production, from imported to produced internally (renewable and nuclear), change in consumption habits (reduction, perhaps rationing), energy management (insulation of buildings).

The Italian Case: An “Emotional” No to Nuclear Power

Italy is among the countries most strongly opposed to nuclear power, as certified by two referendums, following the accidents in Chornobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). However, today’s uncertainties have reopened the political debate on nuclear power.

In the meantime, scientific research has continued through internal and international collaborative projects, such as the one between Italy and Romania,[4] to develop a 4th generation reactor. Italy has always had a thriving tradition of research on nuclear power and its multiple uses, starting with the medical one.

The Italian gas production is still blocked because the current plan (Pitesai) prevents drilling, while Croatia intensifies the same activities in the Adriatic. Renewables have a double limit: intermittency, more severe in solar and wind power, less so in hydroelectricity – the absence of rain in recent months reopened the problem – and geothermal energy, and the scarcity of rare earth. 

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has a concrete approach to problems. The issue of nuclear power is no longer taboo, but there is still a significant resistance; steps are being taken on renewables to encourage unblocking. Even if the suitable areas are primarily saturated, gas production is still at a standstill while storage and infrastructure should accelerate.

The scarcity of energy requires a non-ideological approach based on technological neutrality: all energy sources will be served, together, from gas, with diversified supplies, thanks to TAP and other infrastructures, resulting in a new and varied energy mix.

A Common European Strategy

European cooperation can help Italy. All critical moments in history can lead to change. Europe, which until now has limited itself to being a formal Union, can be a more concrete political subject. In this sense, the pandemic had already triggered a change process; war and the resulting energy and food shortages can lead to a different, real European union.

The transition is far from simple: the decarbonization objectives cannot be postponed further, while one also must give up Russian gas, which guarantees continuous electricity. Europe needs a “plan for electricity,” as the President of the Italian Nuclear Association (AIN)[5] Umberto Minopoli underlined, and based “on two pillars”, nuclear and all renewables, “both internal and not imported resources.”

Also, in his speech in Strasbourg, where he relaunched the idea of a European confederation, the re-elected President Macron[6] outlined his vision of Europe, which cannot ignore food independence and energy self-sufficiency, for which renewables and nuclear are fundamental. There is a definite convergence between leaking from fossils and Russian supplies.

FORATOM[7] recalled that nuclear energy could offer several benefits to help the EU: “security of supply, affordability, and achievement of decarbonization goals.” Electricity consumption will not decrease at all with the summer, far from it. So, stable sources are needed, and nuclear power now is the only durable capable of replacing the gas.

Nuclear is present in the European taxonomy for green investments and is mentioned in the REPowerEU.

A Path for a New Nuclear

At the same time, Italian scientific and technical research is progressing and could offer new perspectives. Several new-generation nuclear initiatives are being tested to overcome the historical limits of atomic energy, the first radioactive waste; within reasonable deadlines, those could cover a part of energy needs. 

In addition to the Italo-Romanian experimental reactor mentioned above, the start-up Newcleo deserves considerable attention. Newcleo has met with great interest from investors and has recently signed an agreement with ENEA (National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development). Newcleo is working to develop a fourth-generation reactor cooled with molten lead, despite the water. Using the plumb to cool the reactor produces a much smaller radioactive waste and burns the waste produced by other traditional power plants, disseminated all over Europe. The goal is to develop a reactor in 7-10 years.[8] So, in full compliance with the principle of circularity, the reactor gives new life to the waste.

Conclusions

In the right words of President Joe Biden[9] on a visit to the Lockheed Martin plants in Alabama: “We’re at an inflection point in history. It comes along about every six or eight generations”. And this is indeed the case. The food crisis and the crisis of the energy model are forerunners of the world to come.

A consolidated model of society has provided – starting from an early age and in parallel with learning the codes of coexistence – an iron “consumption training” today under discussion. But, the crisis of the consumption model, even if supported by the indelible need to sip the resources, which are naturally limited, leads to a decline of a model of society where consumption has guaranteed social stability, growth, and well-being. 

Reduction of energy, lack of consumption, and deterioration of society are intrinsically related phenomena; however, the model that is wearing out is still, with its obvious limitations and its need for reform, the one that has allowed an exit from the condition of poverty for a country like Italy, that was devasted during the WWII.

Geography is a constant – and condemnation – and it is complicated to construct a different story with an unchanged geography – look at Spykman’s maps to understand the strategic nature of Crimea. And therefore Italy, a peninsula moored in the middle of the Mediterranean, which is geopolitical by nature, it is a thermometer of instability. From the MENA belt, the instability is rising to Italy – an exacerbation is to be expected with the closures of the ports on the Black Sea. Italy’s vulnerability is a weakness of NATO. An unstable Italy – and energy is an imbalancing factor – is a first-rate problem for NATO.

 

[1] “Qual è la situazione energetica in Italia? Quadro generale e prospettive”, Infobuild, 8 March 2022. https://www.infobuildenergia.it/approfondimenti/energia-elettrica-usata-prodotta-in-italia/

[2] “The Mediterranean option in energy”, Turkish Policy Quarterly, 30 March 2022. http://turkishpolicy.com/blog/80/the-mediterranean-option-in-energy

[3] “German Unions Warn Russian Energy Embargo Would Shutter Industry”, Bloomberg, 29 March 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-29/german-unions-warn-russian-energy-embargo-would-shutter-industry

[4] “Ansaldo Nucleare signs a contract for the birth of ATHENA:  a research facility for the development of 4th generation reactors in Romania”, 22 November 2021. https://www.ansaldoenergia.com/Pages/Ansaldo-Nucleare-signs-a-contract-for-the-birth-of-ATHENA.aspx

[5] “AIN in audizione alle commissioni della Camera”, AIN site, 14 March 2022. http://www.associazioneitaliananucleare.it/audizione-alle-commissioni-della-camera/

[6] “Macron et la Confédération européenne”, Le Grand Continent, 10 May 2022. https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2022/05/10/discours-de-macron/ 

[7] “FORATOM calls on EU to increase reliance on nuclear power”, FORATOM press release, 9 March 2022.

https://www.foratom.org/press-release/foratom-calls-on-eu-to-increase-reliance-on-nuclear-power/

[8] “Piombo per raffreddare, così il nucleare pulito ci libera dalle scorie,” Il Sole 24 Ore, 25 April 2022. https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/piombo-raffreddare-cosi-nucleare-pulito-ci-libera-scorie-AEJXLVRB

[9] “Remarks by President Biden on the Security Assistance to Ukraine”, 3 May 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/05/03/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-security-assistance-to-ukraine/ 

CONTRIBUTOR
Lorenzo Somigli
Lorenzo Somigli

Lorenzo Somigli is a journalist and press officer who works for industries, factories, and Italian institutions. Also, he founded the blog Il Tazebao, which analyses the confusing contemporary scenarios.

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