Who wants to awaken the nuclear zombie?

With the recent new government led by Mario Draghi (President of the European Central Bank from 2011 until 2019) Italy has introduced a new ministry called the Ministry of Ecological Transition. There were many hopes placed on it, but disappointments began to arrive when we met who would have led it: Roberto Cingolani, former Technology and Innovation Officer at Leonardo, an Italian multinational company specialising in aerospace, defence and security.
However, the new Minister has not initiated any positive innovation in the environmental field in recent months, and recently he has also indulged in declarations against environmentalism and in favour of nuclear power.
To be precise, the Italian Minister said: “Fourth generation technologies are emerging, without enriched uranium and heavy water. There are countries that are investing in this technology, it is not mature, but it is close to being mature. If at a certain moment it occurs that the kilos of radioactive waste are very few, high security and low cost, it is crazy not to consider this technology “.
And then he added: “The world is full of radical chic environmentalists and it is full of extremist, ideological environmentalists: they are worse than the climate catastrophe towards which we are shot. They are part of the problem.”
The Italian scientist and activist Roberto Cantoni replied to the Minister’s statement with this powerful article.

To begin with, it is useful to remember two points. The first is that one of the most polluting sectors currently existing is the one related to Defence and Aerospace, which Cingolani knows well, having been head of innovation for the Leonardo company. If he cared about the problem of ecological transition, it would be desirable to put a stop to that sector first.
The second point is that Italians voted in 2011 for a Referendum against the nuclear solution, and 94% of the voters (55% of those entitled) voted to reject it. Among other things, it was one of the very few recent referendums to reach the quorum. And the citizens’ will cannot be erased with the press of a button or a Minister’s decision.

It would be too easy however, to insist on a sentence and neglect the content of Cingolani’s proposal. Let’s see, then, what the Minister proposes. “Go and look at the numbers”, “Don’t take ideological positions”, he says.
First of all, it is necessary to dispel the myth of apolitical technology: a technology is neither good nor bad, but it is not neutral either (it is the so-called ‘first Kranzberg law’). Technological choices are always, at least in part, politically motivated and declaring that a preference for a certain technology rather than another is something that goes beyond political ideologies is naivety or bad faith.

Also, the Italian Minister argues that “if, at a certain moment, it occurs that the kilos of radioactive waste are very few, there is high safety and the cost is low, it would be crazy not to consider this technology”.
Well, let me clarify that we are nowhere near in this situation, and that therefore talking about it is not only a bad example of risky communication but it is also politically damaging. Let’s admit for a moment that, in a distant day, all the conditions predicted by Cingolani could occur. Would a return to nuclear power then be desirable? No. For several reasons. Let’s start with the data and reality of the nuclear industry today.

What’s the situation of the European nuclear industry like? The percentage of electricity produced from nuclear power is decreasing year after year, also due to Germany’s decision to quit nuclear power following the Fukushima accident. Today it is around 26% but the majority of it is represented by France alone (52%), while the second country for nuclear production, Germany, represents the 9.8%. We recall that Germany’s exit from nuclear power led, in the short term, to an increase in the use of indigenous coal, but that this effect returned in 2013. Now, if Germany, whose industrial apparatus is more energy-intensive than the Italian one, manages to do without nuclear power, it is strange to think that Italy cannot do without it.

Even in France, the European nuclear country par excellence, the voice of those who want to reduce the part of nuclear power, is getting louder: in 2015 the law on the energy transition was approved, which will have to raise this percentage to 50% by 2025, from the low 70% today (a goal that Macron then postponed to 2035). The countries that are currently building plants in the EU are 4 (two in Slovakia, one in Finland and one in France). Both the French and Finnish plants have been characterized by monstrous delays and numerous technical accidents that have postponed its opening several times. Practically, in Europe the nuclear is an aging and moribund industry. Worldwide, according to the WNISR’s calculations, to keep the industry at the status quo, about 135 reactors would have to be built before 2030. Current the global trends are nowhere near heading in this direction, if it weren’t for China, the nuclear industry would be in critical condition: on the other hand, if we’re taking China into account, the situation is stagnant.

If we then add that the cost of decommissioning the plants is increasing dramatically, and that Italy, since 1987, the year of the first Referendum, has not yet been able to decommission the very few reactors it has, one can easily imagine the impact of very long term of nuclear power plants not only on the territory, but also on the state coffers.
With regard to decommissioning, more general considerations come into play. The uranium cycle does not begin when a plant is ‘switched on’ and it doesn’t end when it is ‘switched off’. Uranium must be extracted – and the major producing countries, apart from Australia, do not stand out for their democratic pedigree -, processed and transformed into various substances, then enriched in specific infrastructures, and eventually used. Once its active life is over, the enriched uranium will have produced, among other things, plutonium. This, once reprocessed, can be used for the construction of nuclear weapons, contributing to aggravate the problem of nuclear proliferation. All these activities, incidentally, emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases, which must be taken into account in the final balance. Beyond plutonium, there are external infrastructural limits that must be taken into consideration: in recent decades we have witnessed the multiplication of extreme climatic events, a consequence of human work on the planet.
Earthquakes, floods, fires of vast proportions, hurricanes, are increasingly on the agenda: nuclear power plants are no more sensitive to these events than other energy infrastructures, but the consequences of a nuclear accident are infinitely more serious than those of a photovoltaic system. And I’m still keeping out of the analysis the very acute problem of radioactive waste and where to locate it.

What about emissions?
Nuclear power is often promoted as a near-carbon-free substitute for electricity produced from coal and natural gas, and thus as an essential part of the climate solution. However, any claim that not expanding or supporting nuclear power makes climate solutions ‘drastically more difficult and more expensive’ must depend on comparing the nuclear option with other options. Nuclear power plants are now promoted by people who want to pay attention to carbon but not to cost. Yet, to protect the climate, we need to break down most of the carbon at the lowest cost – and in the shortest time – so we need to pay attention to carbon, cost and time, and not just carbon. The more urgent climate protection becomes, the more vital it is to achieve the largest greenhouse gas reductions per dollar and per year. Being virtually carbonless is not enough. Limited time and money also require climate effectiveness. Newly built nuclear costs many times more per kilowatt hour (kWh), so, as it were, non-nuclear options save more carbon per euro.
Finally, a 2020 study, conducted on 123 countries for 25 years, systematically examined the emissions of countries using nuclear and renewable energy, finding that large-scale domestic nuclear plants do not tend to be associated with significantly lower carbon emissions, while renewables do.

Last but not least, nuclear is an energy whose management methods are notoriously undemocratic.
The decisions are based on management limited to a pool of technocrats appointed by the current government and on the exclusion of almost all citizens from decision making (often on secrecy for military reasons).
Most of the struggles sustained by French citizens at the time of nuclear expansion of the ’70s, were linked precisely to this aspect of deprivation (loss of relevance) of citizenship and led to the formation of different structures control. In Italy, however, we are very far from a similar situation, and the way in which contested infrastructures are managed, reveals what the high technical spheres think about the role of citizens in the decision-making processes in energy matters.
Not surprisingly, nuclear power would continue a centralizing tradition: a tradition that makes the state Lord and Master, and that goes in the diametrically opposite direction to the decentralizing tendencies in place today that allow communities of citizens to associate and decide autonomously on which and how many, energy sources to use and, often, also to resell them to grid operators to make a profit.

In conclusion, rather than thinking about awakening the nuclear zombie, it would be appropriate to take care of energy modalities that have now reached their full maturity, considering that such discussions, especially if advanced by state representatives, do nothing but further postpone the inevitable: an inclusive, healthy and climate justice-based ecological transition.

The author, Roberto Cantoni, is a researcher in Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit of the University of Sussex, and his current, main research focus is on Energy Justice.

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