Next steps – select sites and build
Under a new law now approved by its parliament this week, Italy will in the next six months identify candidate sites for new nuclear reactors. The law also requires the government to set up a regulatory authority to manage the process of building the plants and administering the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel.
Energy Minister Claudio Scajola (left) told the Italian wire service ANSA that the country will break ground for its first new nuclear reactor in 2013 and that the plant is expected to enter revenue service five years later.
These changes, which have taken place in less than two years, are a stunning turn around for a country that abandoned its nuclear power stations in the late 1980s following the Chernobyl accident. What has driven the country to take this unprecedented step is that it has the highest costs for electricity in Europe. Italy relies on oil and gas imports for 80% of its energy use. Last year when oil prices spiked, the country went into economic shock.
Can you build it if they come?
The biggest difficulty is no longer authority to do the work, but actually doing it. Political observers point out the country’s local government system is dysfunctional and beset by a ferocious case of “not in my backyard” or NIMBY. Some provincial authorities are deeply suspicious of nuclear energy and have already stated they will not host the plants. The government says it will pay people to allow the plants to be built in their communities.
Another problem is to find investors who will take the risk of building the plants. Italy’s biggest utility Enel SpA wants in on the action, but is heavily in debt and cannot pay for the new project out of current cash holdings. Government loan guarantees, which are not yet in the picture, could make it possible for the utility to put together financing for new plants.
There’s plenty of opportunity for investors if the sites can be found in the densely populated country. Energy Minister Scajola isn’t kidding when he says Italy needs to build at least eight-to-ten new nuclear power plants (10-12 GWe) to significantly reduce its dependence on imported oil and natural gas. However, the country also needs to avoid building more coal-fired power plants. One of the earliest options may be to buy a 12% share in a new Areva 1,600 MW EPR being built in France.
What is the real green case against nuclear energy?
Like other countries, the battle between greens and nukes isn’t always about ideas. More often it is about who gets capital for investment. Environmental organizations have been howling over the government’s full fledged commitment to the nuclear renaissance. However, in this case the debates over “green values” are about money.
According to ANSA, Roberto Della Seta (left), a spokesman for one of Italy’s greener political parties, claimed the country would spend as much as 25 billion euros ($34.8 billion) on new plants but that they would only account for 5% of the country’s energy use. He claimed that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar could be built much faster and with energy efficiency measures have a far greater impact.
Legambiente, another leading Italian environmental group. used as a springboard U.S. President Obama’s reluctance to fully embrace nuclear energy as being part of the solution to the challenge of global warming. In a gross distortion of what the White House has said, the Italian group asserted that Obama’s opposition is based on the fact that nuclear energy is “polluting and unsafe.”
The government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi isn’t taking abuse or political distortions from Legambiente or any other green group. Italian Senate leader Maurizio Gasparri told ANSA the decision to move forward with nuclear energy “is a turning point, a courageous choice.”
In Brussels Foratom, an association of Europe’s nuclear industry, said new nuclear power plants in Italy would help that nation meet its climate change obligations. Foratrom’s director-general said the decisions taking place today in Italy “will inspire other countries considering a similar political path to press ahead.”
* * *
People are pretty excited about the changes taking place in Italy. Here’s some renaissance music if you want to get up and dance.
# # #