Highlight of the month

Italy: where the nuclear sector stands today

Apr 5, 2023

Umberto Minopoli, President, Italian Nuclear Association

Italy stopped its nuclear activity in 1987, after a referendum. The decision concerned not only the shutdown of four operating nuclear power plants (NPPs) but also cancelling an operative nuclear program which had plans to enlarge the contribution of nuclear to the electricity system through the construction of two new NPPs over ten years.

Thanks to this program, this extra power capacity (about 3500 MW) would have strengthened the security and stability of the Italian electricity system. On the contrary, the decision to phase out nuclear and cancel future projects contributed to making the Italian electricity system the most dependent on fossil imports in Europe, and subsequently, this led to high energy prices and volatile gas prices.

Due to the conflict in Ukraine, inflation and the energy crisis were exacerbated particularly in Italy as the Italian electricity generation system depends 60% on gas and other fossil fuels and only 22% on renewables (mainly hydropower) and energy imports from abroad (nuclear electricity from France, Switzerland, and SlovThect, the Italian electricity supply depends on a much higher volume of nuclear power than that which was cancelled by the referendum.

This is a very embarrassing scenario.

This indisputable truth, combined with Italy’s climate targets and the European debate around the Sustainable Finance Taxonomy and the inclusion of nuclear has triggered a renewed debate about a possible re-entry of Italy into European nuclear activities. The Italian Nuclear Association (AIN), a member of nucleareurope,  fully supports this objective.

In its recent Annual Day held in December 2022, AIN launched a document entitled ‘Nuclear Energy Relaunch Manifesto’ which is based on five main points:

– Drafting of a new National Energy Plan with a neutral approach to transition technologies

– Adaption of national regulations relating to dispatchable electricity technologies

 – Support to Italian Industry participation in European and International projects

 – Localization of the National Radioactive Waste Repository

 – Launching of a public information campaign about the new nuclear technologies available.

Based on this platform, AIN involved the Government and other stakeholders in a debate which led to a bipartisan decision on the contribution of nuclear power (in a European context) to the energy transition and a change in the mix of electricity sources. This approach is being considered by the current political coalition in power. The opposition, however, remains divided on the contribution of nuclear power. At the same time, public opinion registers a new approach to nuclear, with an increasing share of those in favour or interested in understanding the nuclear reality.

As a country with no nuclear power for thirty-six years, we must be engaged in a careful and patient clarification campaign, focusing on the different options the nuclear industry has to offer: large, Generation (GEN) III AIN reactors of the third generation, small modular reactors, GEN IV projects and state of the art of nuclear fusion.

But the real question is: what about Italy’s readiness for a nuclear re-entry? Obviously, the country needs to reinforce (in some cases re-build) its national infrastructure without which a return to nuclear power is difficult. On this, Italy is helped by two things: a large part of the nuclear infrastructure (regulations, licensing and technical procedures) evolves in a European direction. As a former important nuclear country, Italy maintained a strong legacy in this field: from research centres and consortia to university networks and major industries. Over the last three decades, this infrastructure has been strongly involved in the nuclear activity supply chain (innovation power plant design, construction, and service operation new materials expertise, GEN IV design, and nuclear fusion). Ansaldo Nucleare and ENEA, for example, have maintained their nuclear core competencies and facilities, and many other companies have joined them.

In addition, the Italian industry has acquired a particular experience in decommissioning, waste management and, most importantly, research and demonstration of nuclear fusion.

We are strongly convinced that Italy is ready to play its role in a new era of European nuclear energy.

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