In the magma chamber that is the Italian government, new ebullitions have been occurring in this first half of September. These add up to the already complicated picture of government activity in summer. This time, the noise comes from the declarations of the Minister for the Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani. During a political debate forum, he pitched in a traditionally very sensitive issue in Italy: nuclear energy. The few words spoken by the Minister, on a sideline of a much broader discussion about the energy scenarios of the very next future, have elicited the flare up of a wide range of reactions. The sympathizers of nuclear energy in the country, who had been silent for some time now and who had resigned after the two historical referendums that sanctioned the peninsula’s opposition to this form of energy production, grasped the minister’s statements, using them as a fuse to revitalize the debate in the country. The antagonists of nuclear power, on the other hand, have stiffened, raging against the minister and remembering that the word “end” has already been put on nuclear power in Italy. But what exactly did the minister have to say on the ecological transition regarding this topic?
THE FUTURE IS IN THE STARS
Cingolani did not refer to the traditional nuclear power tout court, assuming a return to the same nuclear power that was disavowed by the voters in 1987 and 2011, but pointed out the progresses and development of new technologies.These so-called “fourth generation”, could imply the amelioration of security systems, namely the core cooling system and the reduction in the production of nuclear waste. At the very beginning of his activity as a minister of the Republic, in the first months of 2021, Cingolani stated that “the future is in the stars”. “The fuel that sets the entire universe in motion”, he said, “is the nuclear fusion”; therefore the real progress would be the development of this kind of energy production, defined by the minister as the “renewable of the renewables”. As a physicist, he calls for the adoption of a new approach, based on numbers and statistics, leaving aside any ideological or prejudicial attitude.
The revival of the nuclear issue is even more unexpected as it comes from the words of a minister who has been put in government by a party which in the last three years, has placed itself on ecological and environmentalist position: Five Stars Movements. For this reasons, the hope for an analytical approach instead of an ideological one appears vaguely accusatory. The declarations of the minister, who is not a member of the Five Stars Movements, triggered the discontent within the party, which is now calling the minister to order, asking for explanations. Let’s see then what kind of explanations may come in support of such position.
THE “NUMBERS” OF NUCLEAR
Following the reasoning of the minister, who on several occasions reported “numerical considerations” in his speeches, we must bring some facts to the table. Nuclear energy production is the source of about a third of the electricity produced in the European Union, and it represents a seventh part of the total amount of energy produced within the Union. This is the first fact to bear in mind; namely that Italy lacks the technology responsible for the production of one third of European electricity. It should also be noted that Italy is the largest net importer of electricity in the world, and about 10% of the electricity consumed in Italy comes from the French nuclear sector. This situation causes a high degree of Italian dependence on foreign supplies and the subsequent fluctuations in prices. In the end of 2020, there were 122 working nuclear reactors in the EU, with about half of them placed in the neighboring countries of Italy ( France alone has 57 nuclear power plants). Notwithstanding the wide-spread distribution of nuclear power plants in Europe, the Old Continent still suffers from a congenital vulnerability when it comes to energy production, as it is, indeed, the largest energy importer in the world.
The joint effort in the nuclear sector has been a driving force behind the project of European cohesion and integration since the very first steps of the Union. As a matter of fact, the institution of EURATOM, in 1957, concurrently with the institution of the European Economic Community, represented the ”tow hitch” of European integration, underlining, for this purpose, the leading and fundamental role of the nuclear energy in the original project of the founding fathers. Italy has already exploited this kind of energy in the past, thus nuclear energy would not be a perfect stranger for the Peninsula. As stressed by many observers, Italy’s contribution in the development of nuclear energy has been crucial. Scientists backing uo this perspective such as Ettore Majorana, Enrico Fermi, Emilio Gino Segrè, among the others, have been recognized as some of the fathers of nucleonics. In addition, Italy has been producing nuclear energy from 1963 to 1990, developing in these thirty years competencies and a reliable know how. An heritage of knowledge and skills that has been gradually dispersing, since Italian voters decided to abandon nuclear power in 1987 through referendum, aand reiterated their refusal in 2011.
An important line-up of anti-nuclear power remains, however, critical of the minister and his words. Concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste and the implications for the environment are raised as a barrier to the advent of nuclear power in Italy, while the Ministry of Ecological Transition sponsors numerous public events that seem to be hint for supporters for a return to this kind of energy. An example of this is the “Stand up for Nuclear” meeting, organized in the context of the “All for Climate Italy 2021”, preparatory to the forthcoming CoP26 conference in Glasgow.
WHAT NOW? The nuclear issue broke into the already complicated balance the government stands on, leading to adverse reactions and enthusiastic applause. We could, however, make an easy prediction: the government led by Mario Draghi has a clear sequence of goals to achieve ahead of it, and the resurgence of nuclear power is not among those. This government has been constituted on the basis of pre-established objectives, and will certainly not take any dangerous deviations from the traced path. The words of Cingolani, therefore, should be interpreted as seeds that the Minister is willing to plant throughout the Italian public opinion, in order to soften and disperse, step by step, the tension that traditionally arises when talking about nuclear power in Italy. If a return to nuclear power were to be seriously considered, Italians could have known it from forthcoming governments, certainly not from this one.