Italy Experts Urge Nuclear Relaunch after Gas Crunch
Author: Svetlana Kovalyova
Italians pay the highest electricity prices in Europe because power plants which account for some 75 percent of all electricity output rely heavily on imported oil and gas.
Italy's energy problems have come to the fore this month when Russia cut natural gas supplies due to cold snap at home, forcing Italians to lower heating in their houses and some power plants to switch to more expensive and polluting oil from gas.
"Last few weeks when we saw a drop of Russia's gas, it made us reconsider certain things, rethink our approach to nuclear power," an official from a leading Italian power utility said on the sidelines of a nuclear energy conference in Milan.
Nuclear power generation, which does not produce carbon dioxide (CO2), would help Italy reduce air pollution and slash electricity prices - a move urged by big consumers like steel and cement makers, which say nuclear energy could almost halve their costs.
"The nuclear Renaissance is possible in the long-term... We could see the first 'nuclear' kilowatt produced in some 15 years if there was a political decision. But it does not seem to be coming," said Ennio Macchi, energy professor at Milan's Politecnico University.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in the past has called for a relaunch of nuclear power banned by a referendum after 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, said last week he gave up on such proposals due to local opposition.
Local authorities have a final say in the authorisation of any big industrial project in Italy and their "not in my back yard" attitude has caused lengthy delays and even cancellation of some projects.
In 2003, popular protests blocked the government's plan to dump nuclear waste in the southern Italian region of Basilicata.
WAITING FOR POLITICAL CONSENSUS
Political stability is needed to attract private investors to expensive and long-term projects of building nuclear plants.
"It takes 10-12 years to recover investments in a nuclear station, which means two or three legislative periods. There needs to be a political agreement on the issue to draw private investors," said Jaime Segarra, director of General Electric's nuclear energy arm.
Italy is holding a general election on April 9. Romano Prodi, the leader of the centre-left opposition, has been cautious about Italy's nuclear future, saying he would want to see a breakthrough in safety and waste storage technology before backing a nuclear power revival.
If the government decided on the relaunch, it would take 10-15 years to start up new plants because the stations shut down in 1987 can no longer be reactivated, experts said.
Meanwhile, Italy is losing its expertise in nuclear power and young engineers are no longer interested in nuclear research, university professors and industry experts said.
State-controlled engineering firm Ansaldo cut the number of its nuclear experts to 200 from 2,000 shortly after the 1987 ban, and its arm which builds nuclear stations and reactors has shifted most of activities abroad, its top executive said.
Italy's biggest utility, Enel, aims to spearhead an eventual nuclear relaunch but now is also seeking possibilities to sharpen its nuclear experience abroad.
Enel aims to build two nuclear blocks in Slovakia where it had agreed a deal to buy major power maker Slovenske Elektrarne. It has also struck a preliminary deal to take part in France's new nuclear reactor programme.
"Even if a lot of our colleagues have grey hair, like me, I still believe we have expertise for the nuclear Renaissance. I believe it will come," said Ivo Tripputi, head of safety at state-owned Sogin, the firm tasked with decommissioning Italy's banned nuclear power stations.