Nuclear energy may be the best hope for humanity and the environment, headlined Bloomberg in an editorial published in recent days. Progress in the field of new technologies is evident, says the international news agency. Renewables are becoming more affordable and accessible, but tend to be intermittent. And accumulation systems are not enough. The gap has so far been filled with fossil fuels, but nuclear power could be a valid alternative, much more sustainable than gas and coal. Japan also recently approved a plan to boost the use of nuclear energy. A choice which, as the Financial Timesrepresents a real turnaround compared to the denuclearization plan prepared after the Fukushima accident in 2011. A choice dictated above all by the need to deal with the electricity shortage that is affecting the country, but also by the desire to respect the commitments to reduce CO2 emissions and decarbonisation targets.
Even the Italian Nuclear Association in its recent conference returned to the role that this energy source can have in the green transition and asked the government for three things: energy planning that also includes nuclear fission in the mix of sources, a law that gives incentives to Italian companies that participate in the construction of new plants abroad and a national repository for nuclear waste. On nuclear power, the position of the government is open, at least according to the first statements by the Minister of the Environment and Energy Security Gilberto Pichetto Fratin. We are in favor of experimenting with the new generation to deal with the energy crisis, the minister said in October. But let’s try to understand if nuclear energy can really make a contribution to the energy transition and above all where we are, what is meant by the term fourth generation, what are the costs and timing, with the help of Alessandro Dodaro, Director of the Fusion and Nuclear Safety Technologies Department of ENEA.
Is nuclear power really carbon free?
Emissions from nuclear sources are practically zero when compared with those relating to fossil fuels, i.e. oil, coal and gas. Life Cycle Assessment studies make it possible to study the inputs and outputs in terms of matter and energy to evaluate the environmental weight, which in the case of nuclear power is close to the minimum if low-enriched uranium is used and if the reprocessing of the fuel is envisaged as occurs in generation IV reactors.
What is next generation nuclear power?
The term new generation or rather fourth generation nuclear refers to a group of new types of nuclear fission reactors, studied for decades but which have not yet found application on the market, both because they have very high costs and because further studies are needed before to materialize them. The fourth generation nuclear label derives from the Generation IV International Forum, a research initiative launched by the US Department of Energy in January 2000, which is joined by 13 countries including France, as well as the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) . Fourth generation nuclear power is nuclear fission on which the international scientific community is concentrating its efforts in order to obtain new technologies on which to base fission reactors that are safer and more sustainable. Within the fourth generation we have lead-cooled fast reactors which represent the vast majority of research and development in Italy in the sector, explains the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (Enea) .
Is fourth generation nuclear safe?
The fourth generation reactors are reactors that guarantee maximum safety, just like the third generation ones. What’s more, they do not use uranium-235, but natural uranium that is not transformed into radioactive waste. This makes it possible to significantly reduce the so-called waste, explains Alessandro Dodaro, director of the Fusion and Nuclear Safety Technologies Department of Enea. For a third generation reactor, the probability of damage to the core in a year is 100 times lower than the probability that an ordinary person would have of being struck by lightning during his life.
How much does traditional nuclear power cost and what are the forecasts for IV generation?
The cost of nuclear electricity is defined by the cost of the installation, the operating cost, the cost of dismantling the fuel and the safe management of radioactive waste. The cost of the plant is what constitutes the main part. The starting costs of nuclear power are not even comparable to those of other technologies. For the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), which represents the average revenue per unit of electricity generated necessary to recover the costs of building and operating a generation plant during an assumed financial and operating life cycle, it tells us that the kWh nuclear energy is economically advantageous if we compare it with renewable sources while it is more expensive when compared with fossil sources. Only the energy generated by gas costs less (under normal conditions, ed) and from coal. It is no coincidence that in France electricity has a much lower cost than in Italy, underlines the director of ENEA’s Department of Fusion and Nuclear Safety Technologies.
How many years will it take to build IV generation plants and at what stage is the research?
The road to the plants Generation four still quite long. The first demonstrators will be ready in the next few years, but the transition to networked production will take another 10-15 years. For example, the Brest reactor in Russia, which is the first demonstrator, will be operational in 2026, continues Dodaro. The fourth generation reactors are very large and require a long time, but a smaller type is being studied, which could already be put on the market in the next 10 years – he adds -. Smaller reactors have lower power but several can be built on the same site. Also, unlike the big ones, they can be built in the factory and then assembled on site. Which allows you to speed things up.
What is Italy’s role in research?
Italy has a great tradition in this sector. Enea with its centers of Brasimone and Bologna in Emilia Romagna and Casaccia in Lazio has been involved in research and development activities for over twenty years. In our Brasimone Research Center (Bologna) we are studying a type of small-sized reactor, cooled with liquid lead and therefore capable of producing energy in a safe, reliable and sustainable way – says Dodaro -. Lead cooled fast reactors (LFR) play a very important role as they potentially meet all the requirements introduced for generation IV nuclear systems. Lead is a coolant which has very good nuclear properties and which makes it possible to operate a “hard” spectrum nuclear reactor. This gives the core a long life and a high fuel efficiency, much higher than current nuclear systems. Furthermore, they allow for a drastic reduction of highly radiotoxic waste.
When were the nuclear power plants in Italy closed?
L‘November 8, 1987, one year after a reactor explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (present-day Ukraine – then the Soviet Union), three nuclear referendums were held in Italy. The three questions concerned the abolition of state intervention in the event that a Municipality had not granted a site for the opening of a nuclear power plant in its territory, the abrogation of state contributions for local authorities for the presence on their territories of nuclear plants and the abrogation of the possibility for Enel to participate abroad in the construction of nuclear plants. In all three cases he won the s. Although it was not explicitly requested, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants was the natural consequence of that vote. At the time, four nuclear power plants were active: in Latina, Garigliano, Trino Vercellese and Caorso, which were all closed between 1988 and 1990. But the waste disposal in over 30 years has not yet been completed. According to the latest data provided by the National Inspectorate for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection, updated as at 31 December 2019, in Italy there are approximately 31,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste placed in 24 plants distributed over 16 sites in 8 Regions.
Which countries use nuclear power?
In the EU, the country that has made the most massive use of nuclear energy is France, where 75% of electricity is produced thanks to nuclear power plants. According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, 427 nuclear reactors are active globally. The country in which the largest number of plants is concentrated is the United States, with 92 reactors, followed by France (56), China (55) and Russia (37). Most of the existing reactors are of the second generation. Since 2000, however, mainly third generation reactors have been designed, such as the French EPR.
Can nuclear energy help Italy achieve its decarbonisation goals?
Nuclear power could certainly be of help in our country in the long term too, but in 30 years one cannot think of bridging the gap with other states. In the second half of the century we may have fusion, but it will certainly not be able to make a contribution to achieving the CO2 emission targets set by Europe for 2050. Fission can do it, as also established by the EU taxonomy, but only in countries that they already produce nuclear energy. In Italy the citizens have already expressed themselves on this with two referendums, therefore it is not possible. Unless they decide otherwise.
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