Europe and nuclear – episode 7: Italy

Home     Blog - Nuclear in the EU - The Voices Newsletter     Europe and nuclear – episode 7: Italy
Published on 07/12/2021

As the drama of the Taxonomy of sustainable investments continues to unfold, with the second delegated act – due to be published in mid-December –  stating the fate of nuclear and gas in the future energy mix of the Union, let us recall here how European Member States have historically used energy to shape their power play and why this latest piece of legislation may be one of its most debated, but also one that will shape it the most.

In 1952 entered into force the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community, whose objective was to ensure these resources would not be seized and used to promote conflict, but rather contribute to the common attainment of peaceful prosperity for the five signatories: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

In 1957, the Euratom Treaty, aiming at promotion of the peaceful development of nuclear power, was signed by the same five countries.

As a complement to the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community which aimed to prevent war, the Euratom Treaty aimed at securing peace and prosperity.

The Preamble of that treaty is worth remembering, and the opening words, carefully weighed by the signatories of the time, should be kept in mind. 

Especially today, as we reassess via the Taxonomy how our energy choices will frame our common future under the new threat of climate change. A new threat that bears in its womb all the others: natural disasters, population displacements, economic slump, conflict, increased inequality, poverty, disease, hunger, and very likely populism and authoritarianism.

“RECOGNISING that nuclear energy represents an essential resource for the development and invigoration of industry and will permit the advancement of the cause of peace, 

CONVINCED that only a joint effort undertaken without delay can offer the prospect of achievements commensurate with the creative capacities of their countries, 

RESOLVED to create the conditions necessary for the development of a powerful nuclear industry which will provide extensive energy resources,
lead to the modernisation of technical processes, and contribute, through its many other applications, to the prosperity of their peoples, 

ANXIOUS to create the conditions of safety necessary to eliminate hazards to the life and health of the public, 

DESIRING to associate other countries with their work and to cooperate with international organisations concerned with the peaceful development of atomic energy, HAVE DECIDED to create a EUROPEAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMUNITY (EURATOM)”.

Appreciate the choice of words: “recognising” that nuclear energy […] will permit the advancement of the cause of peace.

Though there might have been a reason at that time to question this choice of word, which conveyed that a truth needed to be recognized instead of reflecting a political conviction or will, we have to admit that 64 years later, facts have proved them right. We may further acknowledge that with the climate threat increasingly looming, nuclear’s contribution to peace and prosperity can  be only more significant than it was already. Not nuclear alone of course, but not without it either.

Nearly 60 years later – two generations – in March 2018, [Austria and Luxembourg agreed] to jointly build a pan-European alliance against the promotion of nuclear energy.  […] As part of a meeting of the German-speaking environment ministers in Luxembourg planned for the spring, a common positioning will also be discussed with Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. […] Following this, the joint platform with the German-speaking environment ministers could be extended to countries in southern Europe.

Well, that plan almost worked. 

As of today, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg form an alliance against the inclusion of nuclear in the Taxonomy, to which Denmark has adhered. But Spain and even more recently Italy, which were rumoured (strongly) to join in the alliance, seem to have changed their minds… and have hence, in the process, kept their options open. And ours.

If this news is confirmed, if Italy puts its weight behind nuclear as a founder of the European Union and its third largest economy – but even more the weight of its nearly 60 million people balancing out most of Germany’s 83 million people, a population headcount essential in the decision process of the European Union – well, Italy may just be the one putting us back on the path to peace.

Fingers crossed.


for the Voices

Nuclear power in Italy
In search of a way out of its fossil gas prison

By Luca Romano

Luca Romano holds a MS degree in theoretical physics and a postgraduate Master in Science Communication and Journalism; he worked as an event manager until Covid forced him to change his job to high-school teacher. His nuclear advocacy & education project has become one of the most sought-after sources of information about nuclear power in Italy.

info box

Italy is one of the founding members of the European Union as well as a member of the G7. It’s the 8th country in the world by GDP and is  home to 60 million inhabitants.

Population density is 206 people per square km and urbanization is around 70%.

Italy is a major global exporter of dietary products and wines, but heavy industry is also important: Stellantis (formerly Fiat-Chrysler Automotive) still has several major factories in Italy (headquarters were moved to Amsterdam), ENI is the 7th biggest Oil & Gas company in the world and Ilva is the largest steel factory in Europe.

Despite its richness when it comes to agriculture, Italy is poor in mineral resources, which means Italian industries rely mainly on imported raw materials.

Italy has a primary energy consumption of roughly 1700 TWh per year; net electricity consumption is 300 TWh, with a baseload of 25 GW and a peak demand that usually doesn’t go above 65 GW.

1. A glorious past…

The world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, called Chicago Pile-1, went critical at 15:25 on December 2, 1942. The team that built it was led by an Italian named Enrico Fermi. Previously, Fermi conducted several experiments on nuclear reactions (mostly neutron capture) alongside a team of Italian scientists who went down in history as “the boys of Panisperna street”: the team included Edoardo Amaldi (who later became the first director of the European Nuclear Research Center), Ettore Majorana, Bruno Pontecorvo and others.

The power plant in Trino Vercellese was the most powerful reactor in the world when it was commissioned

With such an history of groundbreaking research in nuclear physics, the fact that Italy developed one of the most advanced nuclear programs in the world should come as no surprise: by 1964 there were three operating reactors in Italy, and until 1966 Italy was the third biggest producer of nuclear energy in the world, after  the US and the UK. The power plant in Trino Vercellese, in particular, was the most powerful reactor in the world when it was commissioned (270 MWe, doesn’t seem like much now).

Trino Vercellese nuclear power plant

In the 1970s a 4th nuclear plant was built in Caorso and in 1975 the Parliament approved a National Energy Strategy that included a huge nuclear development (let’s not forget that the Yom Kippur War in 1973 caused a spike in oil prices, which prompted many countries to seek alternatives to fossil fuels).  In the early 1980s the Italian reactors at Caorso and Trino Vercellese both achieved world record operational performance and the construction of the 5th italian nuclear generating station began in Montalto di Castro. Construction works were halfway through when the Chernobyl disaster happened…

2. Nuclear phase-out and current energy situation

In 1987, a referendum was held in Italy[1] on nuclear power-related issues. The post-Chernobyl fear prompted the voters to approve all the motions against nuclear power. Although none of those required Italy to shut down its plants or even to avoid building new ones, the governments between 1987 and 1990 chose to follow the general anti-nuclear sentiment: the three oldest plants were to be decommissioned soon anyway (they were first generation reactors) and the fifth one wasn’t yet finished – the timing was right.

Control room of former Caorso nuclear power plant
(Source : Sogin)

The most obvious effect of this nuclear phaseout was an increased reliance on fossil fuels

The Italian civilian nuclear program met its end in 1990. Caorso was shut down after less than 10 years of commercial operation. Montalto di Castro was converted into a multi-fuel conventional  generating station and all other plans for future nuclear plants were scrapped.The most obvious effect of this nuclear phaseout was an increased reliance on fossil fuels, particularly gas and oil, but that may not even have been the worst consequence. As a matter of fact, Italy is not a country rich in fossil resources: there is very little gas and almost zero oil. Phasing out nuclear for Italy meant becoming even more dependent on other countries than it already was. In 2008 a center-right government brought  the nuclear issue back to the table, citing security of energy supply as the main reason. A memorandum of understanding was signed with French company AREVA (now Framatome) for the construction of a few EPR units. Opposition parties immediately started to organize a new referendum to abolish the proposal.

They couldn’t have hoped for more luck: in March 2011 the Fukushima disaster happened, with the referendum set to be held in June. The anti-nuclear parties fueled their campaign with fear and misinformation about the situation in Japan, and the outcome was predictable: over 90% of the voters (around 54% of the adult population) rejected the proposal for  a National Energy Strategy that could include nuclear power.

Since 2010, as per international agreements on reducing emissions, Italy has been subsidizing renewable energy heavily: in 12 years, the renewable industry was granted roughly 130 billion euros, and another 80-90 billion euros are set to be delivered in the years 2021-2030.

Unfortunately, Italy is indeed a sunny country, but the wind doesn’t blow that much (mainly because the Alps block the big continental currents), and the efforts to reduce emissions have been repaid with little success, at least when it comes to the energy sector: Currently Italy relies on fossil fuels for ~81% of its total energy needs and for 45-50% of its electricity.

Renewables currently fulfill ~40% of the demand, but almost half of that amount comes from hydro and geothermal, which have very little room for expansion.

The current percentage of nuclear energy used by the Italians is higher than it was when Italy had its own nuclear power plants

The remaining 10-15% of the electricity Italy uses comes from imports. Ironically, the main supplier is France, followed by Switzerland and Slovenia –  all countries operating nuclear power plants. The current percentage of nuclear energy used by the Italians is higher than it was when Italy had its own nuclear power plants.
Italy is currently the largest  net importer of electricity in the world (in number of MWh, not percentage); it’s also one of the countries with the highest dependence on foreign nations  for its primary energy supply: even if ENI (originally the National Hydrocarbons Board) is a big player in the international Oil & Gas market and owns several production wells all over the world, Italy still has to import more than 75% of its primary energy.

In the year 2020, Italy completed the TAP (Trans-Adriatic Pipeline), a very big pipeline connecting wells in Azerbaijan to southern Italy; part of the incoming flux of gas is then sold to other European countries. Libya is also a major supplier of oil & gas for Italy.

Map of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline

Discussions about future Italian energy policies were further stimulated by the gas price spike in September

3. Some hope for the future?

After about a decade of silence in Italy about the National Energy Mix, the issue was brought back in 2021 by the new Minister for the Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani, who cautiously endorsed 4th generation nuclear technology by saying it shouldn’t be automatically ruled out. This sparked a huge debate, with criticism from the center-left and the populist 5 Star Movement and praise from the right (including right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini).

Discussions about future Italian energy policies were further stimulated by the gas price spike in September 2021, which led to a huge increase in Italy’s electricity and gas bills: even with an intervention from the government, the price of electricity went up by 30%. Recent polls have shown that most Italians still oppose existing nuclear technologies (70%), but a slim  majority (51%) of respondents say they could consider 4th generation reactors. Half of  Italians, however, are still convinced that it is possible and desirable  to transition away from fossil fuels by using only renewable sources of energy.

Roberto Cingolani,
Minister for the Ecological Transition
(Source : Facebook – Ministero della Transizione Ecologica)

A key point that emerged in the polls is that more than half of Italians do not believe they know a lot about nuclear power. Nuclear power appears to be more popular among right-wing voters who see it as a possible solution to achieve energy security and price stability, while left-wing voters and environmentalists still fail to see nuclear power as a tool for decarbonization.

Overall, it’s unlikely Italy will soon turn back to nuclear power, especially considering that a site  for the national radioactive waste repository is still to be found. However, if small modular reactors (SMRs) prove to be an effective and sufficiently cheap technology, it’s possible that we may see a change that may lead Italy to return to nuclear power in the 2030s.


[1] There were three questions that concerned nuclear power: the first was whether to keep or abolish the possibility for the State to decide the location of a new Plant, should the local authorities fail to find an agreement; the second was whether to keep or abolish subsidies for municipalities hosting Nuclear Plants; the third was whether to keep or abolish the possibility for the Italian National Energy Body to own Nuclear Plants in other countries.