Italy's new government announced last week that within five years it plans to start building nuclear power plants. Two decades ago the country's voters banned them and ordered the decommissioning of all its reactors. It represents a dramatic dismount from being hung up on what is now seen as a wrong turn in energy policy. The Italian government is reversing its course from reliance on fossil energy to seek a nuclear future.
Claudio Scajola, minister of economic development, told the New York Times May 23, "By the end of this legislature, we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants. An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore."
Leadership on the nuclear issue comes right from the top. On his first day as Prime Minister, for a third term, Silvio Berlusconni told the upper house of Italian parliament that, "nuclear power . . . is an indispensable option . . .for guaranteeing the energy needed for future development and for safeguarding the environment we live in."
Even the nuclear industry itself was impressed by the change in direction. Ian Hore-Lacey, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association in London, told the NYT, "Sentiments against nuclear are reversing very quickly across Europe," as a result of Italy's dramatic public turnaround.
These are brave words indeed, and the Italian government will need a lot of courage to proceed down this path. However, the biggest threats to a nuclear energy future for Italy aren't greens or nonproliferation groups.
It seems that Galileo Galilei's famous retort to the inquisition "and yet it moves" in defense of planetary orbital mechanics has acquired new meaning in the 21st century, but the dark side of Italy's energy future isn't ignorance, it's coal.
Sunset for coal in Italy may be a long way off
Right now Italy's energy future is tied to its own massive commitment to coal fired power plants that is already in place. The New York Times reported April 23 that over the next five year the country will increase its reliance on coal for electricity from 14% to 33% and overall power generated by coal will rise to 50% of total capacity.
Italy's decision to go nuclear has been coming for some time. The announcement is significant because it reflects a realization in Europe about the effects of global warming from fossil fuels used to generate electricity.
The destabilizing threats of the effects of global warming are not, so far, deterring Italy from continuing to invest in coal for the near terms. Some of the "advantages" include 200 years of supply, relative low cost compared to oil and natural gas, and many sources of coal so there is no cartel like OPEC to put a stranglehold on prices.
Enormous investments will be needed
The key question for Italy is how it will pay for a new, massive investment in nuclear power plants? Reuters reports that the head of A2A, a major Italian utility thinks risk sharing among electricity producers is the way to go.
"(It will take) enormous investments with considerable sums set aside for decommissioning," A2A Executive Board Chairman Giuliano Zuccoli (right) told reporters.
"That's why we believe it is necessary to create a consortium of producers led by Italy's biggest utilities."
Energy experts told Reuters it will be difficult to find funds for new nuclear plants in Italy with state funding scarce and private investors reluctant to finance capital-intensive and long-term projects which also face strong public opposition. However, Fulvio Conti, chief executive of Italy's biggest utility Enel, which owned all Italian nuclear stations before the ban, said the return to nuclear would cut by 20-30 percent Italians' power bills, among the highest in Europe.
Energy experts also say Italy needs nuclear power capacity of between 8,000 and 15,000 megawatts to reduce dependence on energy imports, cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and reduce power prices.
An Areva EPR, which is a likely candidate for Italy's nuclear fleet, given the country imports most of its electricity from France, produces 1,600 MWe. The need for new generating capacity would require five-to-nine of the giant reactors.
Roberto Poti, head of development at Italy's second-biggest utility Edison SpA told the wire service Italy would need at least 12 years to build up nuclear plants with a total capacity of 10,000 MWe (six EPRs).
Greens will make it hard for Italy to go nuclear
Reuters reports that green groups plan to mount a major campaign to insure that Italy will keep its ban on nuclear power.
"We say 'No' to nuclear... to construction of plants which would be outdated by the time they are built... the plants which are not secure and create waste problems," said Marcello Saponaro, (right) an attorney and the head of Greens in the northern region of Lombardy.
Italy's Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, and environmental group Legambiente said in a joint statement boosting renewable energy generation and energy efficiency were much more immediate, simple and less expensive ways "to stop energy fever" than nuclear energy.
Nonproliferation expert says it is a conspiracy
But greens aren't the only groups opposed to Italy's nuclear renaissance. Henry Sokolski, (left) a noted expert on nonproliferation issues, wrote a scathing OP ED in the Wall Street Journal (sub req.), titled, "Italy's Nuclear Job," on May 30.
Starting with financial considerations he said that Italy's huge debt would prevent it from making the necessary investments in nuclear energy. He wrote,
"Italy and Europe would be wise to stay away from energy investments that no private bank would make without government support. For the moment, that would have to include nuclear."
He said there are three reasons why no new nuclear power plants will be built in Italy.
- Skyrocketing construction costs
- Build times of 10-20 years
- No one in Italy wants one in their backyard
Sokolski also sees a political power play to consolidate power among a few large electric utilities as another reason why Berlusconi's government wants to pursue nuclear power.
"Energy experts, though, suspect something a bit more sinister. The announcement could be part of a long-term effort by the largest European utilities to push out smaller competitors by arranging massive government support for large, expensive nuclear power programs."
Where Sokolski goes wrong is that he says Italy wants to build "4th generation nuclear plants" that haven't been designed yet and that puts their completion two decades into the future. In fact, as noted above, Italy would likely go with Areva EPRs which are third-generation designs. Two of which are under construction. One is in Finland and the other is in France.
Generations come and go
Perhaps one of the reasons that Italy's government is making the move now is that a new generation of Italians have grown up and represent a change in public opinion about nuclear energy. In 2004 Italy enacted new legislation that establishes the basis for joint ventures with foreign companies for nuclear power plants.
World Nuclear News also reported that environment minister Raffaele Ventresca has said that Italy's environment and industry ministries, regional governments and state agencies are in the process of identifying potential radioactive waste storage sites, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The search is focusing on potential sites for an above-ground storage area, the report said. Ventresca said that a site could be identified as early as June.
It will be a tough fight for Italy to make progress with its plans for nuclear energy. Meanwhile, its voters will have to decide whether they like the alternative, which is a massive commitment to more coal fired power plants.
Postscript - Galileo has the last word
The last word on a new nuclear build in Italy belongs to Galileo. While there is no written historical evidence that Galileo uttered his famous expression at his trial, according to later accounts the legend first became widely published in 1761 which is a century and a quarter after he supposedly said it.
Critics of Italy's new nuclear build are faced with a similar reality. Although they want to turn back the clock on energy policy in that country, in fact it has moved into the 21st century.
Four hundred years after the Church put Galileo (left) on trial for heresy the Times of London reports the Vatican is to complete its rehabilitation of the scientist by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls.
The planned statue is to stand in the Vatican gardens near the apartment in which Galileo was incarcerated while awaiting trial in 1633 for advocating heliocentrism, the Copernican doctrine that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and a nuclear physicist, said: “The Church wants to close the Galileo affair and reach a definitive understanding not only of his great legacy but also of the relationship between science and faith.”
It is not a leap of faith to understand that coal leads to more global warming and nuclear does not. It is a fact of science.
Update June 05, 2008
Italy's minister for economic development Claudio Scajola told Italian newswire Radiocor that the government plans to start construction of a nuclear power plant in 2013. He said, "we can't go backwards. We have to go forwards. Europe and Italy require it of us."