Nuclear energy in Europe

 By Luca Longo

The European Union is the world’s largest importer of energy: it spends €400 billion a year to buy from abroad more than half of the energy it consumes. Italy plays its part: it is the world’s biggest importer of electricity, buying 15% of its electricity requirements, most of which comes from French nuclear power…

Coal, oil, gas, and renewable energy are often central issues on television talk shows, parliamentary debates and barroom discussions. But we hardly ever talk about nuclear power. We seem to think that we got rid of the problem years ago. What most people don’t know, however, is that nuclear power plants now produce around a third of our electricity and a seventh of all the entire energy consumed in the European Union.

Nuclear energy is a low carbon alternative to other fossil fuels and is a critical component of the energy mix in all European states, including Italy. In order to deal with the shortage of fuels and the explosive industrialisation of the entire continent after the end of the Second World War, the first six founding states of the Coal and Steel Community (the ECSC from which the European Union would later emerge) chose to focus on nuclear power in order to achieve energy independence. This is why the same six founding countries, including Italy, established the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) with the aim of contributing to the research and development of plants for the production nuclear fission power for peaceful uses.

Scholven Nuclear plant (Sebastian Schlüter, Wikimedia)

The first setback came after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986: in Italy, the nuclear debate led to the 1987 referendum and the definitive closure of all four of the country’s reactors (Caorso, Garigliano, Latina and Trino Vercellese) all built before 1990. The second occurred in 2011, following the Fukushima catastrophe: the most expensive industrial disaster in history. Just three months later, a second referendum in Italy led to the total cancellation of all its nuclear ambitions, Belgium temporarily closed two plants after the discovery of cracks in the core of its reactors and Germany shut down eight; and decided to dismantle all its remaining facilities by 2022.

The governments of many countries have been forced to abandon nuclear power in response to the panic caused by these two catastrophes. But few have stopped to think about the relative safety of the various sources of energy. A study by the International Atomic Energy Agency and Forbes has calculated the number of deaths per billion KWh of energy produced. It emerges that coal is by far the most lethal, followed by oil, biomass, natural gas, hydroelectric, solar, wind, and finally nuclear power, which is the safest source of energy. To make a comparison: in 1975 the collapse of a series of dams in China resulted in the deaths of between 171,000 and 320,000 people. Meanwhile, the number of ascertained victims of the most serious nuclear accident in history, i.e. Chernobyl, is 66, while the UN has estimated a total of around 4,000.

Those who want to resume the development of nuclear energy will have to invest above all in the safety of plants and facilities in order to guarantee higher safety margins for operators, people and the surrounding environment. Greater health problems, however, come from the extraction of the uranium needed to feed the reactors. A quarter of the world’s reserves are in Australia, another quarter is distributed between Kazakhstan and Canada, while the remaining 50% is scattered across the rest of the planet. In Europe, significant quantities can be found almost everywhere, including Italy, which has around 6,100 tons of reserves, most of which is located in two deposits just 15km away from each other in the Orobie Alps in Lombardy: specifically, in Val Vedello (SO) and in Novazza (BG). Neighbouring Russia and Ukraine own 5% and 3% of world reserves, respectively, but the vast majority of the depths of Siberia are still unexplored, and many additional deposits may be hidden under the permafrost.

Sixty years after the foundation of the ECSC and Euratom, it is clear that the goal of European energy independence, the main aim of the founding fathers, was not achieved either by nuclear or by other available energy sources. On the contrary, the European Union has become the largest importer of energy in the world, spending a total of €400 billion per year to buy more than half (53%) of the energy it consumes. If we take a closer look at on electricity, we can see that in 2015 nuclear, coal and renewables each provided exactly 27% of Europe’s demand, while gas and oil contributed 17% and 2%, respectively. It should be noted that more than half of the renewable component comes from hydroelectric turbines rather than from more “noble” sources such as solar or wind. We are still very far from the European target for 2030, when electricity from renewable sources should reach 46-50% and account for 27% of total energy consumption.
Moreover, by 2030, all European states will need to have infrastructure in place so that they can – if required – export to other European countries at least 15% of the electricity produced in their territory. We are currently some way off from this goal as a good ten European countries (excluding Cyprus and Malta, that mainly import) are not in a position to be able to guarantee the export of even 10% of their production.

These figures show that Europe is dependent on nuclear power for more than a quarter of its electricity and more than half of the electricity derived from low environmental impact sources comes from the 128 atomic power plants installed in 14 of the 28 European states.


These nuclear plants produce a total of 119 billion Watts (GWe), and more than half of this from 58 power plants in France. In fact, it should be remembered that France produces more than three-quarters of its own electricity through atomic fission. We should also remember that another 56 nuclear power plants operating in non-EU states (Russia, Ukraine and Switzerland) provide about 17% of the European Union’s electricity requirements. With Brexit, Great Britain is about to leave its moorings, taking its 15 nuclear power plants and 7% of nuclear power produced out of the confines of the EU. Among other things, what remains within the borders is Sweden – which produces as much as Great Britain – and Germany, which contributes by 9% but which – we as we said earlier – plans to dismantle all their nuclear facilities by 2022.

During the French presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron confirmed the country’s commitment to reducing French dependence on nuclear energy set by President Hollande. The goal of reducing the percentage of electricity produced by nuclear power from 75% to 50% would be maintained, but the new president has not confirmed whether this target will be reached in 2025, as foreseen by the previous executive. President Macron will have to try not to alienate the support of the Greens, the Left and environmentalists, while at the same time not overlooking the expert analyses that have defined the achievement of this goal over the next 8 years as “technically unrealistic”.

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Italy also has another negative record: it is the world’s biggest importer of electricity. To the 132 Terawatt hours (TWh) produced, in 2014 the country had to add 22.3 TWh purchased from abroad to meet a domestic demand of 153 TWh. Of the 15% imported, the majority comes from French nuclear power. As mentioned, Italy is the only G8 country that does not have nuclear facilities. Nevertheless, well over 10% of the electricity consumed in the country comes from nuclear power, so, of course everything is imported, mainly from France. In the unlikely case that the political choices in France regarding nuclear come under discussion, it would be very difficult for Italy to retrace its steps.

First of all, Italy does not have easily re-usable infrastructure: the country is still spending money on the dismantling of its four nuclear power plants and managing the fissile material contained therein, but it is unthinkable bring them back into service as they are conceptually outdated. For the record, the dismantling of Caorso alone – which was in operation for only three years – is expected to cost at least €450 million, plus another €300 million for the reprocessing of fissile fuel.

But most of all, after the country’s withdrawal from nuclear power, there has been a parallel diaspora of technicians, engineers and physicists working or specialising in the nuclear field. Even the historic National Committee for Nuclear Energy has been prudently renamed the National Alternative Energy Authority. If Italy wanted to return to nuclear power today, it would have to buy not only the power plants but also the technicians from abroad. The country that made a decisive contribution to peaceful nuclear power thanks to the work of Fermi, Amaldi, Pontecorvo, Segré, Majorana, and the Ragazzi di Via Panisperna finds itself lacking the necessary expertise and no longer able to train a new technical and scientific class in the nuclear field unless it sends its young people to study abroad…. and hoping they will then come back.

SEE MORE: Europe’s new energy mix by Amanda Saint

about the author
Luca Longo