Italy’s New Challenge to Nuclear Power

Energy - June 7, 2024

Italy has higher electricity costs, and by a lot, than its European partners. A situation that has been going on for some time and that in a critical phase for the economy such as the current one is even more alarming.

And we are not referring to the ‘final’ costs, including taxes and levies often accused of being the cause, but to the cost of pure energy, without any additional charges: it is the highest in Europe.

This is an issue that certainly affects our families, but represents a real gap for our industry, which finds itself not being competitive from the outset. This is why the Meloni government has made it a priority to reduce these costs, for the country’s industrial growth and to reduce production costs and encourage job creation.

One of the main reasons for the high cost of Italian electricity is to be found in its production: it is mainly produced by power plants that burn natural gas (about 45% of the total) and, as is well known, the price of this resource has risen dramatically since the start of the Ukraine war. The European average of electricity production from gas is 19%, less than half. One of the most virtuous countries by now is certainly Spain, which produces almost 50% of its electricity from renewable sources. France, as is well known, has nuclear power, which supplies 65% of its energy. In addition, the French government has imposed an extremely low price on energy from nuclear power plants, bearing the remainder of the costs directly. Germany also uses more renewable energy than our country, but it also makes extensive use of coal by offering economic subsidies to companies that use it to buy coal credits. Further north they also have many forms of alternative energy production, from nuclear to geothermal. In short, we are lagging behind in the EU for many reasons, certainly because we lag behind on renewables, but also because we have no possibility of

subsidies as Germany and France do. We have little margin for spending and we come from years of political mistakes that cannot be solved with a magic wand, such as the closure of nuclear power plants or the concentration of resources on items that then generated deficits and not wealth.

It is therefore necessary, as our centre-right government is doing, to accelerate with wind and photovoltaics and, of course, nuclear power.

The government has pledged that Italy will install at least 70 gigawatts of new renewable capacity by 2030.

An almost titanic undertaking, especially considering the bureaucratic issues involved, but not impossible.

Our south could indeed be one of Europe’s strongest solar energy production points, and this is what the ministry is working on, alongside the longed-for and necessary return to nuclear power.

And it is precisely from Europe that the push for nuclear energy production has come: at Cop28 2023 (the United Nations conference on climate change) in Dubai, a group of 20 countries signed a pact to triple the world’s nuclear energy capacity by 2050, and a few weeks later the EU officially included atomic energy among the technologies considered strategic for achieving the goal of zero net emissions by 2050, giving the go-ahead to the European Commission to set up an industrial alliance for small modular reactors.

And Italy has also joined the industrial alliance on mini nuclear reactors.

The government in Rome has finally broken the hesitations and announced its entry into the initiative promoted by Brussels on the sidelines of the G7 Environment, Climate and Energy meeting held in Turin, under Italian presidency. The goal is to arrive by 2030 with the first European-made modular reactor.

‘We have decided to join the European Industrial Alliance on mini-reactors as the Ministry for the Environment and Energy Security to confirm the support of the country system and to give a concrete signal of interest in the development of new cutting-edge technologies on small modular reactors, which can make an important contribution to the achievement of European decarbonisation goals,’ said Environment and Energy Security Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin.

This is a necessary step, which finally breaks the deadlines and is the natural continuation in political terms of Italy’s first accession based on the provision of ‘research and development expertise’.

Small modular reactors are nuclear reactors that are smaller both in terms of power and physical size than conventional gigawatt-scale power plants, ranging from 10 to 300 megawatts. They are based on existing technologies and are designed to be factory-built in standard modular form, and their main advantage is that they can be assembled in the factory and then shipped and installed on site, thus also in remote areas with limited grid capacity or in areas where the use of large conventional nuclear power plants is not possible.

Already at the time, the government had taken steps to fill the regulatory vacuum on nuclear power that had been created after the referendum that led to the closure of Italy’s existing power plants. Now the will is to start again, a will dictated by pragmatism but which winks at the environment, if we consider that new-generation power stations are environmentally friendly, especially when compared to those currently present in Italy.

The challenge is launched, yet another of the Giorgia Meloni-led government. We are certain that this too will be a winning challenge.