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sabato, 28 Maggio 2022

Electricity hunger. Time to talk about nuclear power again

11.01.2021 – 11.00 – Have you received an electricity bill for €100 and not even switched on a single light bulb? Don’t worry, it will get worse in the coming months. What makes the bill more expensive are the commodity prices (which are not free of speculative pressures), especially those we buy from other countries. Italy, which is very poor in energy sources, buys a lot: at least 15 per cent of its needs from abroad, and rising, and our preferred supplier is France. The current Italian energy mix (GSE data, Gestore dei Servizi Energetici) says that 45 per cent comes from renewable sources (up a few points in recent years) and that the move away from coal is progressing well, as it represents only 6.3 per cent (and even less from oil, only 0.5 per cent); but there is still gas, which continues to represent 42.3 per cent, and we see every day what ‘gas’ means in the household budget today.

From the point of view of commitment to the environment, one could say that things are not so bad: Renewable energy is increasing, and even if it costs money, we are willing to spend more for a clean country. Apart from the fact that renewables are by no means free of pollution (from the components of batteries and solar cells, among others, including the need for dismantling and disposal), there are two facts that undermine the certainty that things are actually going well: The first is the realisation that it is impossible to meet the electricity needs of a country like Italy with renewables alone, as demand has been steadily increasing in recent years (due to telecommunications, air conditioning, industry, sustainable mobility) and will not stop in the foreseeable future.

Greta Thunberg’s Sweden still generates 40% of its energy from nuclear power; Emmanuel Macron’s France has a government that claims to actively pursue a policy of no nuclear power, but is 70% dependent on it (with the money Italy gives France, we could maintain three of our own power plants). Germany claims to have abandoned nuclear power, but in reality it has only closed the last power plants and increased the output of the remaining ones while waiting to shut them down and replace the missing energy with coal. Then there is the UK, which has expanded its nuclear power, as has Slovenia. Spain has 20% nuclear power and a plan to phase it out by 2035, but under pressure from the pandemic has realised that the disruption of renewables is too much for the country, so we are back to coal and oil. Switzerland has 35% nuclear power; we will not go on with Russia, China and the United States because it would make little sense (we already know how much the big ones depend on nuclear power) to point out that only Italy actually got out of nuclear power after Chernobyl (and at the insistence of the same). The second factor is the one we started from: the bill that increases year after year, month after month, showing that Italy is impoverished to an alarming degree and far from being energetically sovereign.

Given the poor results of COP26, the definitive phase-out of coal is a matter of urgency. Is it possible to phase out nuclear energy in Italy? As we have already said, it is difficult to imagine this without at the same time accepting total dependence on other nations that impose their own prices and choices, even if nuclear energy is the most unpopular after coal (less than 20% of citizens agree to talk about nuclear energy). Even if the controversy between supporters and opponents of nuclear energy has generated more smoke than fire since 1986 and has remained linear, the idea of being able to continue to pretend that nothing happened after the pandemic is not tenable – and in fact the politics of nuclear energy is already being revived: there are supporters and opponents again.

Let us start from the premise that the move away from nuclear energy was ultimately motivated by most people’s lack of understanding of how nuclear energy works, by the three major historical accidents that occurred: Three Mile Island in the movie “China Syndrome”, Chernobyl in the HBO series (very good, but not very historically accurate) and Fukushima, which we witnessed live. The total number of people killed in these three accidents, while Chernobyl’s death toll was pushed to the extreme (the result of a thermal explosion triggered by a reaction that became uncontrollable due to flaws in the reactor’s design and operation: Not a nuclear explosion), when counting the consequences of the tragedy, is very small, practically irrelevant compared to other energy tragedies (Bhopal; Vajont) or to the number of deaths due to fossil fuel pollution: one in five deaths, the global average, is due to air pollution (about 9 million deaths per year). Without wishing to diminish the scale of the problem, and without recalling that the Fukushima accident occurred after an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented magnitude, it can be said that this is not entirely true and the way the problem has been presented is not correct. Electricity is always needed, and more and more: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Renewable energies cannot guarantee this. So if you want renewable energies without nuclear power, you remain dependent on gas, coal or oil.

Replacing coal and oil with gas, as has been done, has (partially) cleaned up our skies, but made us dependent on those who produce the gas, because we have none. Pollution from oil and coal has caused greater tragedies for the environment than Fukushima: just look at the photos and reports of entire ecosystems wiped out by oil rigs gone mad. In some cases, species disappeared so quickly under the impact of oil spills and accidents that scientists did not have time to document what was happening – we only noticed later. Today, despite the large number of power plants in operation around the world, the number of people who have died in the entire history of nuclear energy amounts to a few hundred thousand, if we want to be pessimistic. The number of people who have died from fossil fuels is optimistically estimated at a hundred million. So is nuclear energy dangerous? At first glance, coal and oil are much more dangerous.
If we put ideology aside, nuclear energy has important advantages that we can no longer ignore. Nuclear energy must be seen as a key component of decarbonisation. Pursuing the ideal of replacing 100% of fossil fuel energy with renewables alone could take us to a dangerous limit beyond which there will be depletion of naturally scarce materials such as lithium; another risk factor is the lack of suitable space to build plants with particular characteristics. Meeting a nation’s global demand with renewable energy alone is therefore becoming impossible as demand grows, especially in the tight timeframe set by the climate crisis. Local conflicts and human rights violations in countries where rare mineral resources are found are already commonplace, and the same applies to the locations of large solar and wind power plants.

Nuclear energy can provide constant power without the need for solar, wind or battery systems, and with little land consumption already with existing technologies – a factor of increasing importance as climate phenomena become unpredictable and violent. Nuclear energy pollutes little: the smoke we see rising from nuclear power plant towers is just water vapour. If we were to replace fossil fuels with nuclear energy, we could certainly save millions of lives by 2050. The more we look at pollution from particulate matter and petroleum derivatives, the more we discover things that should scare us – from irreversible neurological diseases to birth defects to early dementia. Nuclear power plants, by their nature as single points of generation (where production is constant), are perfect for immediate and easy integration into complex electricity distribution grids. In contrast, renewable energy plants are smaller, variable and intermittent, and necessarily more dispersed, requiring a rethink and redesign of the entire electricity grid in each region: This is the problem facing Germany, for example (where the transformation of electricity grids to adequately accommodate renewables is taking much longer than expected and will certainly last well beyond 2030).

Once built, a nuclear reactor can easily be operated for fifty or even eighty years: The same is definitely not true for a wind or solar power plant. In summary, nuclear power generation technology is well established, reliable and very well suited for effective innovation: This is demonstrated by the more than 450 nuclear reactors that are in operation worldwide and have been working for more than 50 years without a single accident or health risk. The situation is quite different with renewable energy plants, which have only recently reached a production level comparable to that of the older nuclear reactors. The absolutely viable path of small modular nuclear reactors (“city reactors”, also “district reactors”) offers a flexibility potential that is difficult to imagine for renewable energy plants.

Does nuclear power involve risks? Of course it does. And the claim that nuclear power is an absolutely safe way to go is one of those things in social media that reminds us of the recent film “Do not Look Up” and makes us think. The main enemy of the climate is not those who are afraid of nuclear power: It is still those who say they can do without it one hundred percent, coupled with those who say that climate change itself is a conspiracy. Even though technological advances are promising, it takes about ten years to build a new nuclear power plant, and the cost of the energy produced averages 150 euros per megawatt per hour, compared to 40 euros for wind energy (in reality, the range is between 30 and 55) or solar energy. Nuclear power plants can end up costing more than they produce: A profit-oriented energy production system in a free market cannot therefore support a switch to nuclear energy on its own; the construction of new plants should be strongly supported by state investment and public subsidy policies that run counter to the current liberalist trend. Without this investment and without the intervention of public capital (as in Finland, the first country in the world to equip itself with a deep and safe waste repository, which should be ready in 2023 and will provide an effective solution to the waste problem, albeit at a cost of three billion euros), innovation in nuclear power will have no future: the use of thorium instead of uranium, the efficient reprocessing of spent fuel and salt deposits, and nuclear fusion are a reality, but the costs associated with these new technologies cannot be borne by private individuals, and there is currently no guarantee of when these new technologies will be available for mass production.

The extraction and processing of fissile products for nuclear reactors also involves risks and has an impact on the environment: it has been calculated that half a million tonnes of rock need to be processed to extract about 25 tonnes of uranium. And today’s nuclear energy is by no means for eternity: uranium and plutonium are non-renewable and, if used intensively for energy production with the technologies currently available, could give us perhaps a maximum of 250 years of autonomy (there are even more pessimistic voices that speak of only a few decades if we think of covering the world’s electricity needs with nuclear energy alone). Unless we resort to extracting uranium reserves from under the oceans, which is anything but easy. Only thorium reactors can solve this problem, but as we have already said, they are not ready yet. (Thorium is not forever either, but we are talking about much longer timescales within which it seems more realistic to achieve the cost-effectiveness of a general-purpose fusion reactor or consolidate reactor technologies that reuse spent nuclear fuel for repowering).

Back to our calculation. How much does nuclear cost us in addition to taxes (12.6 per cent of total spending, including regional taxes, VAT and excise taxes on electricity, and almost 36 per cent on gas), even if we do not want it? As we have seen, we buy it from abroad for an average of 3.5 per cent, to be precise, until a few years ago, then dropping to 3.2 per cent in 2020. And then there are the costs we spend on dismantling nuclear energy: There are strong economic interests in decommissioning what is left of the Italian nuclear power plants, amounting to billions of euros (more than four in ten years) hidden under various items. The money that the Italians spend on dismantling the plants and completely phasing out nuclear energy ends up mainly with the state, which distributes it to interested parties through subsidiaries; it exceeds 3.5 billion euros in the same ten years. It is true that it is only a few euros per person, but it is also constant and at a time when there are no euros; it is included in a part of the item that also includes the rebate reserved for the railways, the bonus for the smaller electricity companies and the share that supports families in economic distress – all in all, about 20 per cent of our bill. Of course, disposal and decommissioning is not easy – the time that has elapsed since the abandonment is now quite long, and if this item no longer existed, the flow of money from a certain tap would dry up, certainly for good reasons, and it is then quite strange that part of the money we pay each year for the abandonment of nuclear energy goes directly back to the state: about 100 million euros per year.

Therefore, perhaps it is time for a new, clear debate on the relationship between the costs and benefits of nuclear energy, especially now that the plants built many decades ago are reaching the end of their lifespan and we have to decide what to do next: Despite all the risks and problems that nuclear energy brings, fossil fuels remain more merciless killers than nuclear energy. It is about making a choice about the kind of future society we want, and recognising that a world of services like the one we are evolving into cannot be sustained without high electricity consumption. The choices we make today will shape the society of the future. Nuclear energy and renewable energy do not have to be opposites. This is demonstrated by the nations that have chosen both paths to find a balance that guarantees energy independence, which in turn is a factor for peace. The debate on nuclear energy, which absolutely must be reopened, can therefore focus not only on climate change and the need to do everything possible to combat it, but also on how Italy envisages its future. Because if the data currently being analysed on the acceleration of climate change were to be confirmed, the capacity of nuclear energy to significantly and rapidly reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere would actually be enough to decide to replace coal-fired power plants as soon as possible and wherever it makes sense, and without thinking too much about it. The Atlantic ocean currents are weakening, that is certain, and whether the collapse occurs in a few decades or in a hundred years makes little difference: without rapid human intervention, it will certainly occur, and the consequences would be devastating.

[Roberto Srelz]



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