Saving the environment one atom at a time

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Recent statements made by the Italian Minister for Ecological Transition, which represented a straightforward openness towards atomic energy, caused a lot of stomach aches among several members of the mostly ideologised environmentalist world and the fringes of politics most hostile to economic development.

« Not considering nuclear power is insane » – «  The world is full of extreme environmentalists who are worse than the climate catastrophe we are heading for ».

Leaving aside the various reactions that Minister Cingolani’s words may have triggered in the Italian debate, an opening of this magnitude is the litmus test of a changing media and political climate. The subject of nuclear power in Italy had seemingly been definitively closed with the 1987 referendums which, however, never banned nuclear power from Italy, but only affected a few bureaucratic issues.

The first referendum demanded the repeal of the government’s discretion to determine arbitrarily where nuclear power plants would be located in the absence of an agreement between the local authorities. The second referendum demanded the repeal of incentives for municipalities hosting nuclear power plants on their territory while the third banned the handling of nuclear plants abroad by ENEL (at the time Italian national energy provider).

In the wake of the communist Chernobyl disaster, and in order to tap public opinion, it was decided to shut down the nuclear power plants in Italy. It should be noted, however, that this was a political decision and not the actual result of the referendum. The recent soaring costs of commodities and the associated costs of producing and running energy utilities have brought completely into question the possible use of nuclear power to provide tangible support to the energy transition without impacting on consumers’ pockets.

One of the most authoritative voices in the European debate, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), pointed out in a recent report that: “The analyses revealed no scientifically-based evidence that nuclear power does more harm to human health or the environment than other electricity generation technologies already included in the taxonomy as supporting climate change mitigation“.

Cheerio to Greta Thunberg.

«The comparison of impacts of various electricity generation technologies (e.g. oil, gas, renewables and nuclear energy) on human health and the environment, based on recent Life Cycle Analyses, shows that the impacts of nuclear energy are mostly comparable with hydropower and the renewables, with regard to non-radiological effects» the JRC report adds.

To be honest, the proposal – which has emerged in some European chancelleries – to close 32 nuclear plants in Europe, equivalent to 31.9 GW of completely CO2-free energy, has raised quite the number of concerns. The first to break away on this issue was the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, the Frenchman Thierry Breton: “Why deprive ourselves of such production capacity?” Good point.

Let’s face it: France gets more 65% of its electricity from nuclear power[1], giving it the lowest emissions of any major economy. This is in stark contrast to Germany where nuclear generates 11% of power, while fossil fuels account for 44% (24% of that from coal). France’s nuclear reactors currently cover 70% of the country’s energy needs and provide the state with something like €3 billion in revenue each year.

With these figures, and escalating energy costs, it is no surprise that many European countries are reassessing their positions: in the Netherlands, growing popular support for nuclear power has completely halted the phase-out path; in the Czech Republic, the government has guaranteed increasing use of nuclear power with more capacity planned for 2040; in Slovakia, reliance on nuclear power has been increased to reduce dependence on coal-fired plants; in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, new plants are planned for construction; and in Finland, the fifth national reactor will be launched in 2022, with a sixth plant already in the planning stage.

To date, nuclear power plants produce one third of the electricity and one seventh of the entire energy consumed in the European Union. It is a de facto low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels and a strategic component in the energy mix of Europe’s major economies.

On 14 July 2021, the European Commission made a commitment to develop policy packages aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50-55% compared to 1990s volumes over the next ten years. This package, “Fit for 55”, will not only expand the deployment of renewable energy sources and promote energy efficiency, but will also speed up the transition to low-emission transportation and overhaul the EU’s emissions trading system to cover new sectors, or – at least – that’s the plan.

Representatives of the nuclear energy industry clearly supported this initiative, emphasising that nuclear energy could be a way of achieving the Commission’s ambitious milestones.

Shortly afterwards, two reports, one by the Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) and the other by the JRC, showed that nuclear energy could indeed be eligible for European funding as a clean energy source. Considering that without nuclear energy it is highly unlikely that carbon neutrality will be achieved in 2050, it is possible that the heterogenesis of the ends may force the EU to chase nuclear energy because of this ideological levity towards the common energy policy.

One of the most common arguments used by opponents of nuclear power is the potential number of deaths that this type of energy can cause, usually due to improbable waste radiation and so on.

An IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and Forbes[2] report calculated the number of deaths per billion KWh of energy produced, including the accidents at Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl (USSR) and Fukushima (JAP), and found that coal is the deadliest energy source, followed by oil, biomass, natural gas, hydroelectricity, solar, wind and, finally, nuclear.

According to another report[3], nuclear is ranked on a par with other renewables.

The above is supported by further evidence, such as a publication of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies[4]. Using historical production data, the authors managed to calculate the role of nuclear energy in preventing mortality by greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts from fossil fuel burning. In detail, it has been highlighted how global nuclear power has prevented an average 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent GHG emissions. Taking into account the 2011 Fukushima accident, it has been found that nuclear energy could prevent an average of 420.000-7.04 million deaths and 80-240 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions due to fossil fuels by mid-century.

Moreover, it should be noted that according to the study, the prevented mortality estimates are likely conservative, as the mortality factors considered do not incorporate impacts of ongoing or future anthropogenic climate change.

Furthermore, the quoted study also brilliantly proved how a large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would cause far more casualties than expansion of nuclear power. As a matter of fact, while it has been acknowledged that natural gas might play an important role as a transition fuel to clean-energy alternatives, long-term spread of it could lead to unabated GHG emissions for many decades, mitigating climate change mitigation efforts.

Although Russia and Ukraine hold respectively 5% and 3% of worldwide uranium reserves, the material is widespread throughout Europe, including Italy where there are reserves of 6100 tonnes, mainly located in two deposits a few kilometres apart. As a side note, critics claim that uranium mining is a particularly dangerous activity, it should be pointed out, however, that uranium extracted in mines gives off the same level of radiation as granite and subjects miners to even lower levels of radiation than airline pilots[5].

Amidst the silence of Italy and much of Europe, however, the Union has become the world’s largest energy importer, spending a total of EUR 400 billion to buy 53% (more than half) of the energy it consumes from abroad.

In addition to this record, as highlighted above, Italy has an even more impressive one: it is the world’s largest importer of electricity, and of all the energy imported, 15% is produced by cheap French nuclear power. Meanwhile, the closure of nuclear power plants in Italy has economic and human costs that we are still dragging along in 2021: from 600 to 700 million euros for waste disposal and loss of engineers and technicians ready to serve in foreign countries that have not given up the atom.

The green transition is not going to be a gala dinner, as the commodity price run-up that has been inflaming the markets in recent months shows. A Bloomberg report[6] based on emissions targets for 2050 tells us that 1.7 billion tonnes of steel will be needed to build the wind turbines needed to achieve zero emissions, enough to construct 22.224 Golden Gates. Electricity grids will require another 11.303 “bridges” and photovoltaic panels another 6.694 Golden Gates.

All this is without considering the need for rare-earth elements and the CO2 emissions required to build all the plants. By the numbers: are renewables more sustainable than nuclear? According to data from the US Department of Energy, it would appear not.

Observing the entire life cycle of energy sources (factoring in the plant construction costs), nuclear power is most sustainable[7]: 16.500 tonnes of materials are needed to produce one TWh of photovoltaic energy, 14.000 tonnes for hydroelectric power, 10.200 tonnes for wind power, 5.300 tonnes for geothermal and only 920 tonnes of materials for one nuclear generated TWh.

In the case of renewables, in fact, the low energy density (i.e. energy produced in relation to energy consumed) of these sources requires the employment of huge quantities of materials, such as steel, glass, rare-earth elements and materials that are difficult to extract, process and dispose of.

In terms of CO2 impact, producing 1 GWh of energy (in terms of life-cycle of the plant) results in only 3 tonnes of CO2 in the case of a nuclear plant, to 4 tonnes in the case of wind energy, 5 tonnes for solar energy, 34 tonnes for hydroelectricity, 78 to 230 tonnes for biomasses, 490 tonnes for natural gas, 720 tonnes in the case of energy produced from oil sources and 820 tonnes in the case of energy produced from coal.

As it is widely known, renewables are mainly derived from intermittent energy sources such as sun and wind, and their use must take into account simple facts such as that the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow. Yet there are several services, from security to hospitals to the internet to lighting, that require secure, permanent, always available energy sources.

The ratio between the average energy produced by a plant and the maximum energy that can be produced is the capacity factor. A plant with a capacity factor of 100% produces energy 24/7. In the case of nuclear power, this value reaches over 92%[8], the highest recorded, compared to 56.8% for natural gas, 47.5% for coal, 39% for hydroelectric, 34.8% for wind and 24.5% for solar power.

Cost-effectiveness also takes on an economic connotation if we look at the levelled cost of energy (LCOE), i.e. the net cost of producing energy from a plant over its lifetime (which includes the initial investment capital, the cost of waste disposal and the actual yield of the plant) [9]. In this case, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports an average cost of $69 per MWh with nuclear power, compared to the much more expensive CCGT gas ($71 per MWh), hydro ($72 per MWh), coal ($88 per MWh), wind ($89 per MWh) and photovoltaics ($94 per MWh).

According to the IEA: “Nuclear thus remains the dispatchable low-carbon technology with the lowest expected costs in 2025. Only large hydro reservoirs can provide a similar contribution at comparable costs but remain highly dependent on the natural endowments of individual countries. Compared to fossil fuel-based generation, nuclear plants are expected to be more affordable than coal-fired plants. While gas-based combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) are competitive in some regions, their LCOE very much depend on the prices for natural gas and carbon emissions in individual regions. Electricity produced from nuclear long-term operation (LTO) by lifetime extension is highly competitive and remains not only the least cost option for low-carbon generation – when compared to building new power plants – but for all power generation across the board.”

Considering the state of the art regarding the research of fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which should be capable of using part of nuclear waste as fuel (in which Italy is among the research-leaders), technological progress leaves room for cautious and commensurate optimism. This is the case with the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) experimental reactor, in which Italy is participating with companies such as Fincantieri, Ansaldo Energia, ASG Superconductors and Vitrociset (Leonardo Group), with contracts worth over a billion euros.

Finally, the recent success of the ENI “supermagnet” designed to control nuclear fusion, as part of the Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) research project, in which Italy has a majority stake, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, is the latest – for now – brick in a great tower of innovation that should perhaps give the world of the atom greater consideration and political dignity, to prevent the green transition from turning into an economic and social massacre.

Bottom line, the green transition is bound to happen, and reducing CO2 emissions is an undoubtedly desirable goal.

The high ambition of this target, however, should be accompanied by an equivalent objectivity in understanding which solutions can lead to the desired result. Bending scientific elements to the mercy of political expediency is the original sin of a certain vogue of politics; to learn in order to deliberate and choose without prejudice is the only recipe for a greener future.











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