Europe and nuclear – episode 6: Malta

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Published on 29/10/2021

Germany, Luxembourg and Austria are now at the very heart of a coalition of countries that work at EU level, in the context of the Taxonomy negotiations. Their aim is to destroy any hope for a non-nuclear country with limited financial resources to use nuclear energy. All the while it becomes impossible to close our eyes to the energy reality that we are faced with: without hydroelectric capacity, nuclear power is the only viable long-term solution to supply an electric network. But these three countries do not care. They have pre-existing nuclear or hydraulic capacities and/or a lot of resources and above all, they are positioned at the centre of the European continental electricity grid. In other words, they will always find a way to rely on the generosity, spontaneous or not, of others.

Malta with 4000 years of history, a population with a unique heritage and culture set in a natural setting that makes it one of the jewels of the Mediterranean, stands at the outskirts of the Union. But Malta has little space, little time and fewer resources than many other Member States. Although it is part of the European Union, it is geographically the furthest away. If it decides to go nuclear one day, it will be among those who need support from the block.

So, what do we, European citizens, intend to do? What commitments do we take with one another? Will we choose to help each other, to ensure by our actions that we do not rise at the expense of one another, and aim become stronger together than we would have been alone? Is this not part of the commitment that comes with EU membership? Whether you are one of the first founding states or one of the most recent inductees? Don’t the “oldest European nations” have a responsibility to the new ones, if only to set a good example to follow?

We have chosen to be citizens of the European Union, notably because we share one of its cardinal values: solidarity. We will therefore stand in solidarity with the Maltese and act to ensure that they too can choose their future, that they are not deprived of an option that others have chosen already: access to nuclear energy. This access could one day mean survival, or decline, for this nation that has been contributing to European identity for much longer than it has formally existed.

for the Voices

Malta and energy: a small island with big potential

by Matthew Curmi

Matthew Curmi is the Maltese Representative for Voices of Nuclear currently undertaking a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Malta.

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Malta is a three-island archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea lying 80 km (50 mi) south of Italy. With a population of about 515,000 over an area of 316 km2, it is the 4th most densely populated sovereign country in the world.

Malta, the main Island, is home to 400,000 inhabitants. More broadly, about 95 per cent of its territory is considered as urbanised according to the United Nations.

Its climate is typically Mediterranean, with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. This is why the country has limited water resources. It only produces about 20 percent of its food needs.

The country has no domestic energy sources, aside from the potential for solar energy. This led to limited industrial development, with the exception of the IT sector and some manufacturing (electronics, food and beverages, textile, plastic, leather…), with Malta mostly being a service economy (tourism, finance…).

Malta has been a member of the European Union since 2004 and became part of the eurozone monetary union in 2008.

The threat of an energy stalemate

If you have never heard about Malta, it is probably because it is one of the smallest nations in the world. I always encourage people to Google our three-island archipelago and look at the size of the airport’s main runway relative to the mainland for scale. As a result, Malta has found itself in an ambiguous geopolitical position whereby a densely populated, small independent nation, is situated too far south to be culturally identified as European and too far north to be identified as African. It is an island with limited natural resources and heavy reliance on imports. Failure of one of its three reverse osmosis plants would provide enough water for one month only [1].

Malta is faced with droughts in winter and temperatures constantly in the high thirties during the summer. Climate change is an undeniable reality in Malta, so much so that the discourse amongst the younger population is shifting to settling abroad, not for the employment as our grandparents’ generation did, but as climate refugees.

Malta is a country full of contradictions – record-high employment but a notable presence of precarious work, constantly improving standards of living but a dominance of overdevelopment, an elegant rural environment but an emerging trend of dry winters. Malta has been overexploited for its natural beauty while its educated and qualified workforce meets the needs of the pharmaceutical, IT, research and gaming industries. Malta boasts a itself as an established, developed nation, but when demand exploded to 561 MW this August, there was a nationwide power outage. The country was experiencing a 39℃ heatwave – people slept in their cars that night.

Source: Energy use per person in Malta

« Other larger countries can compensate for the low density of renewables by devoting larger areas to them, in Malta this is not possible»

Malta, like all EU nations had a commitment to reach a renewable power generation share of 10% by 2020. The contribution figure was downsized through a strife negotiation with the EU and yet Malta still fell behind this goal. It was around September 2019 that I became concerned about our substandard performance. Then – still prepping to commence an engineering course, I set to note the amount of PV panels required to power future power projections, then I did the same with wind turbines. For the nuclear engineering community, this should not come as a surprise – nuclear power is energy-dense; wind and solar are not. But what other, larger countries can compensate for by devoting larger areas to renewables, Malta cannot achieve at all.

Comparison of the size of the island of Gozo with the area required to meet Malta’s energy needs

In Malta there is this flawed ambition shared by politicians towards going 100% renewable. People think that the solution towards solving our climate crisis is to push the 10% Malta is at right now, up to 100%. The island is heading towards the classic liquid natural gas (LNG) baseload. The duck curve problem[2] is very dominant, especially in the summer, and Malta’s dependence on LNG and interconnectivity has never been greater.

« Solar panels yield their best performance at low demand-hours and simply do not supply any energy at all when demand skyrockets in the evening. High intermittency can only be compensated for by a flexible fuel such as LNG »

It therefore was not surprising that in 2015 the Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) fired power station in Delimara was converted to an LNG fired one. At the same time, reliance on interconnection with the European grid grew rapidly – in fact there is a second interconnection in the making.

Electricity production by source in Malta

Malta – soon a nuclear country?

So far, the topic of nuclear power as a solid energy solution for our islands has not been taken seriously. There is a notable culture of scientific misinformation in the general public especially regarding nuclear power. The Maltese public is notoriously anti-nuclear, but at the same time readily engaging in conversation. It is understandable to be concerned about nuclear safety and spent fuel – but concerns turn into relief when presented with the science.

Nuclear power was safe, is safe and will remain safe. It is very much like flying on an airliner, the prospect seems risky – literally flying in a container through the air but in actuality airliners are the safest form of travel. We need to dispel the confusion between risk and danger. Risk is always present and can be quantified – danger is a product of carelessness. How would I sound more trusting of nuclear power than by promoting a technology that can be installed a couple of kilometres from where I live? While larger countries may refer to the phrase ‘not in my backyard’ metaphorically, a small island like ours’ will use that phrase literally.

With the prospect of SMRs it will soon be possible to fit a fleet of nuclear reactors in an area the size of a small sports stadium.

A visualization of a small SMR plant designed by Rolls-Royce
Source : Rolls-Royce

« The small modular reactor or SMR is by far the best reactor solution for our islands »

It should be emphasised that SMRs are not a foreign futuristic technology, but a physical and present technology powering aircraft carriers and submarines. Once my physics professor and I joked about the prospect of connecting a couple of Nimitz Class aircraft carriers to our electric grid. However absurd the idea may seem; it would actually work – that’s 3 aircraft carriers for good measure. The SMR offers a clean, safe energy source that can be readily activated and deactivated to account for demand fluctuations.

Another aspect should not be forgotten, and that is access to water. As one would expect from the arid Maltese landscape, water is scarce. Malta is heavily reliant on reverse osmosis plants and its fresh water aquafers which are running out fast. Nuclear power can not only meet our energy needs but also provide desalinisation facilities.

Look at the facts and adopt a rational approach, for both climate and people

The sense of hope for better renewable technologies has never been higher on our islands – but is really an act of desperation rather than an ambition towards decarbonisation. The EU is currently spending billions in trying to solve problems with renewable intermittency, longevity and energy density. However, the aim of the engineer is to firstly avoid having the problem before trying to solve it. In this respect, renewables fail and the prospect of trying to solve the issue of climate change with a failing technology is constantly sending us back to square one. We need to invest in ideas that work and whilst we are at it, defund projects that do not work.

The issue is that renewables give us a false sense of hope – that if one day things get very bad, it is possible to immediately and safely transition. This, however, leaves questions unanswered: How are we going to get steel? How are we going to get lithium, concrete, silicon and aluminium? How are we going to do all of that without putting a single ounce of carbon into the atmosphere? No number on a spreadsheet will solve climate change. Nothing is free.

Presently Malta has bipartisan support for offshore wind and more investment in solar. The mere suggestion of implementing nuclear power in Malta is not taken seriously. Nuclear power is not a glorified energy source for the large countries but is an enabler of economic growth and improved standards of living for small countries too. It would be a genuine pity to lose such an opportunity for a case of gut feeling. Additionally, it would a be a disaster to lose what is potentially our last chance of saving our planet.



[2] Definition: The Duck Curve Problem stems to the intermittency cause by renewables but especially solar energy on an electric grid. Put simply, solar provides maximum supply when demand is stable and relatively low. In the evening when people return home, two things happen – the sun sets so there is no longer a solar supply, and demand skyrockets as people make use of their home appliances. This causes a sharp demand/supply energy ramp that presently can only be met by LNG-fired powerplants. The term ‘duck curve’ refers to the general shape of the demand. The more PVs are installed, the deeper the ‘valley’ of the curve gets and the sharper the demand ramp in the evening.