On May 9, 2023, the Italian Parliament approved a motion to urge the government to consider incorporating atomic power into the country’s energy mix. Italy abandoned nuclear energy with a referendum after Ukraine’s 1987 Chernobyl disaster.
Nuclear energy may be back in style in Italy. Last week, the Italian Chamber of Deputies gave the green light to the government to “evaluate the opportunity to include nuclear power in the national energy mix” as a clean energy source.
According to the motion – proposed by the opposition party Azione – the government should create a national deposit for radioactive waste, consider using modular reactors, support nuclear power research, and join the “Nuclear Alliance” proposed by the French government.
“Fourth-generation nuclear power […] is as safe as it is clean,” said Environment Minister Gilberto Picetto Fratin following the Chamber’s approval. “We will now discuss with our European partners and evaluate […] how to include it in the national energy mix.”
Fratin also noted that this would set Italy on the way to reaching its decarbonisation objectives and will support the European Union in achieving its goal of climate neutrality by 2050.
This should not be a surprise, as all the parties in the current coalition government usually favour atomic energy. However, the topic itself remains controversial among the public.
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The country was among the early adopters of nuclear energy in the 1960s, initially ranking third in atomic power generation behind the US and the UK. Nevertheless, much like Germany, Italy experienced a wave of nuclear scepticism during the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in a referendum on atomic power in 1987, prompted by the Chornobyl disaster. Nuclear energy opponents won, and by 1990, Italy was the first major economy to phase out its existing plants completely.
Now, however, things may change rapidly.
The motion’s approval, for now, doesn’t mean commitment. The government has only agreed to consider it but has yet to adopt its suggestions. However, the vote signals a stark change of pace from the past – probably a much-needed one.
Renewables represent only 17.6% of the country’s energy mix, while natural gas alone accounts for 41%. By betting on nuclear energy, a power source as reliable as fossil fuels and as low carbon as renewables, Italy may reduce its hunger for coal, oil and gas.
However, although nuclear power is becoming more popular among the Italian population, and especially among the younger electorate, many still regard this type of energy as dangerous or not economically viable. Moreover, a government intending to build new nuclear power plants will inevitably have to deal with protests and vetoes, even from local authorities – usually uncooperative toward new energy infrastructures.
Nevertheless, the motion’s approval remains crucial for Europe’s ongoing energy debate. It also constitutes an important signal for other EU economies. With Germany closing its last nuclear power plants in April, Italy has a chance to become an atomic energy champion alongside France.
After all, the country is still a nuclear parts supplier and boasts high-quality university education in atomic sciences. If a major economy and manufacturer like Italy gives nuclear energy another shot, more countries may follow suit, helping Europe achieve carbon neutrality.
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