The Ukrainian crisis and the consequent cutting of Russian energy supply to Europe has emphasized the need for the EU to limit its energy dependence and to develop a strategy of European energy production. In this scenario, nuclear energy may be a feasible solution.
What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is produced through the process of nuclear fission, consisting in the splitting of atoms in a reactor, which heats water into steam, turns turbines and generates electricity. The reaction is fueled with a specific isotope of uranium, the U-235, which can be obtained from natural uranium through a conversion and enrichment process.
Uranium is an abundant resource and is distributed evenly in all five continents: according to Eurostat, 44% is found in OECD countries, 22% in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and 34% in the rest of the world, which limits geopolitical risks related to the dependency on one single state, as we’re experiencing with Russian gas supply.
Why do we talk about nuclear energy?
According to Eurostat, electricity generation from nuclear plants in the EU decreased by 25.2% between 2006 and 2020. Germany, which is the second largest producer of nuclear electricity in the EU (9.4% of total EU nuclear production in 2020), is phasing out of nuclear energy by the end of 2022.
However, contrasting directives have come from the European Commission, specifically from the 2030 climate and energy framework, which emphasizes the goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions, allowing room for nuclear. The EC has indeed approved a Complementary Climate Delegated Act, including nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy of environmentally sustainable activities.
Pros and cons: is nuclear energy renewable?
Nuclear is a non-renewable energy source, as its main fuel, uranium, is a non-renewable resource. Nonetheless, it is generally considered as clean and sustainable, which is the reason why the European Commission includes nuclear within the climate and energy framework. Being a zero-emission energy source, it keeps the air clean and has a small land footprint compared to other clean sources. One disadvantage is that it produces radioactive waste, which must be stored in proper facilities to decay for thousands of years. However, the results of the Joint Research Center’s report are positive: experts claim that ‘the potential environmental consequences and inherent risks of long-term nuclear waste management […] remain acceptable’.
The main criticism about nuclear energy is related to the fear of nuclear accidents, which can have devastating consequences on a massive scale. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are scary memories that strongly influence people’s perception of nuclear energy. However, the JRC declared that, if plants comply with EURATOM directives, ‘the fatality rate caused by severe accidents is for nuclear energy comparable to that of any other electricity production technologies [..]’.
One last aspect that recently emerged is the Russian attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which leaves open the possibility, during war, to use nuclear plants as strategic targets to voluntarily cause radioactive disasters in enemy territory.
Is nuclear energy a possible solution to the energy dependence on gas and oil supply?
Nuclear energy has high density: the amount of uranium required to produce the same level of electricity of other energy sources is minimum.
The advantage of nuclear energy compared to other renewable sources is that plants can run continuously for 2 years without pause, while renewable sources can generally operate only during specific seasons. Moreover, nuclear production is highly flexible, so that total electricity production can be slowed down or increased according to the needs.
Nuclear energy plants are very complicated to run and require a high level of knowledge and skills. While this aspect makes it difficult for developing countries to adopt it, it is not the case in Europe, where many central plants are already in place and technical skills are strongly present.
Focus on Italy
Italy relies mainly on gas and oil energy supply. While the share of oil supply is decreasing (in compliance with EU directions), the share of natural gas is increasing. Gas production is a non-renewable source, emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gasses. Italy only produces about 160,000 TJ of gas, which is approximately 6.5% of total gas supply (approx. 2,448,000 TJ). 43% of gas imports is from Russia.
It is evident that Italian extreme dependency on gas is a non-sustainable strategy, not only because of the geopolitical risks connected to Russian supply but also due to its contrast with EU energy transition. Alternative, more sustainable solutions need to be found and nuclear energy could be an appealing option. However, in the Italian scene nuclear energy is not even taken into consideration. After the popular referenda of 1987 and 2011, when citizens voted for the closure of nuclear plants, the question of nuclear energy has been dismissed. It must be pointed out that both ballots were requested in the light of recent nuclear plant disasters that had strongly influenced the public opinion: the 1987 vote was asked one year after the Chernobyl accident and the 2011 one only a few months after Fukushima.
Many still fear the risk of nuclear incidents. It is a reasonable concern, but we must consider that four French nuclear plants are located near the Italian border so that, in case of an accident, the Italian territory would be still affected.
In light of the new circumstances, it may be the time to take nuclear energy into consideration, as a powerful, clean energy solution that could lead Italy toward a stronger energy independence and a more sustainable energy mix.