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Exit 30 years ago: How Italy manages without nuclear power

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Exit 30 years ago: How Italy manages without nuclear power

After the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe, Italy abandoned nuclear power and renewable energies are on the rise. There is a catch, but there is also a departure.
Actually, the Italian government – unlike those in Vienna, Paris or Berlin – wanted to stay out of the European discussion about nuclear energy. Then the topic would probably have quickly disappeared from the media. That’s how it was a few months ago, when Roberto Cingolani, Minister for Digitization and Ecological Transition, indirectly advocated a return to nuclear power. But the head of the right-wing Lega party has discovered the topic for himself. Not a day goes by without Matteo Salvini proclaiming his nuclear creed in front of cameras or on Facebook. He demands that Italy get back into nuclear energy. The debate was fueled on New Year’s Eve by the EU Commission when it released a document proposing to include nuclear power and natural gas in the ‘taxonomy’, the European classification scheme 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 with at least 65 percent of the EU population – an unlikely scenario.

Can we do without nuclear power plants? “Yes”

Among the G7 countries, the seven largest industrial nations, Italy is the only one without its own nuclear power plants. The country has not produced nuclear power 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 by 1990. In 2011, another referendum confirmed the result at that time. Since then, Italy’s energy supply has consisted of a mix of natural gas, oil, hydroelectric power and other renewable energies. A blackout, which nuclear power advocates in Germany have been painting on the wall for years as a threatening scenario, only happened once. That was on September 28, 2003, when at 3:37 a.m. power went out across the country. Some, primarily southern regions remained without electricity for 24 hours. What caused the power outage was never fully clarified. The most likely explanation is that in Switzerland a tree fell on power lines that also supplied Italy, which set off a chain reaction. So it can also be done without nuclear power plants, say opponents of nuclear power. “I would answer with a ‘Yes’,” Davide Tabarelli, on the other hand, replies to a corresponding question in an interview with ntv.de. Professor in the Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental and Materials Engineering at the University of Bologna, he is also a nuclear proponent 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’ve learned to do without nuclear energy that we produce ourselves.” In 1986 there were only two working reactors and one very old one. A new one was under construction.

Without gas imports, the light would go out

The fact that Italy can manage without its own nuclear power plants does not mean “that we have a more efficient and sustainable energy system,” says Tabarelli. Because unlike Germany, which exports more electricity than it imports, Italy is dependent on electricity imports. “We import about 15 percent, mainly from France and therefore produced from nuclear power,” says Tabarelli. And anyway, without the French reactors and those elsewhere in Europe, the whole continent would sit in the dark, the professor is certain. But Italy is not only dependent on electricity imports. According to a document from the Italian Ministry of Economy, the country is 75 percent dependent on imported energy sources. Among them, natural gas, which is used for electricity, industry and heating, is the most important energy source. Of the 75.95 billion cubic meters of natural gas consumed in 2019, 7 percent came from national production and the remaining 93 percent was imported. “And that doesn’t just make us incredibly weak in terms of supply,” says Tabarelli. Italy does not only get natural gas from Russia, but also from Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan and even from the North Sea, “but in view of 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 at the Polytechnic of Turin, has a different perspective on the subject. “We have to use less energy,” he says, first of all, and that the constant growth in energy consumption is “a chimera”. He thinks that the EU’s intention to classify nuclear power and natural gas as sustainable is anachronistic, “just like Minister Cingolani’s considerations about drilling for natural gas again. That way we would fall behind again instead of moving forward.”

Something is moving

Indeed, Italy has natural gas deposits, albeit modest, in the Po Valley, in the Basilicata region and in the Adriatic Sea. This is an estimated 90 billion cubic meters. There are conveyor systems, but they have been idle for a long time. “Of course, we cannot switch off everything that emits CO2 from one day to the next,” Tartaglia admits. But that doesn’t mean you 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 enormous progress in the generation of renewable energies in the last 15 years. We now cover 9 percent of the national demand with it. We have to keep going because we could easily generate twice as much.” (The 9 percent are wind energy, photovoltaics, energy from biomass and geothermal energy; if hydropower is included, Italy achieves a share of renewable energies of 25 percent.) The so-called energy communities could make an important contribution, i.e. communities that meet their needs produce your own energy. Whereby Italy still has some catching up to do in a European comparison. There are currently twelve energy communities, all of which are in the north. But something is moving. Of the 60 billion euros that the National Reconstruction Plan foresees for the energy transition, 23.78 billion euros are earmarked for renewable energies, of which 2.2 billion euros are for energy communities. “Moreover, in mid-December the law regulating communities came into force,” adds Tartaglia. In the next five years, the number of energy communities could rise to 40,000, benefiting 1.2 million families, 200,000 offices and 10,000 small and medium-sized businesses, according to a study by Milan’s Politecnico University of Applied Sciences. “That must be our goal,” says Tartaglia. For him, the taxonomy proposed by the EU Commission is just “greenwashing”, the ecological embellishment of non-sustainable energies. Tartaglia quotes the famous sentence from the book “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: “If we want everything to stay the way it is, everything has to change.”


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