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Reviving Italy’s nuclear power industry

14 August 2009

The revival of Italy's nuclear power industry after a gap of more than 20 years has moved a big step forward. Enel, Italy’s chief power utility, and Electricité de France (EDF) have launched a joint venture, valued as much as $16 billion, to study building nuclear plants in the country.

Nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine
Nuclear power plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine

The joint venture, which is owned equally by the two utilities, will study the feasibility of building at least four reactors in Italy of the European pressurised reactor type favoured by EDF, at a cost of about €4 billion for each 1,600MW unit.

EDF has said that economies of scale should allow it to improve the cost-effectiveness of EPRs as it builds more of them. Construction of the reactors would not start until 2013 at the earliest,and are scheduled to be operational by 2018.

The creation of this joint venture would lay the ground for the come back of the Italian nuclear industry and contribute to the recovery of the country’s economy by creating specialised jobs and increasing employment.

The historic deal, originally agreed to in February at a summit in Rome between  the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is part of the Italian government's drive to reverse a decades-old ban on nuclear-power generation in Italy. Italians rejected nuclear power in a referendum in 1987, a year after an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine sent shockwaves round the world and turned public opinion against atomic energy due to widespread concern about safety, nuclear waste as well as the rising cost of producing nuclear energy. At the time, Italy had four nuclear power plants in operation and a fifth was being built. They were decommissioned following the referendum.

The move in Italy is part of a trend world-wide to build nuclear power stations as governments try to shore up energy security and take action on greenhouse-gas emissions to meet climate-change commitments. Nuclear power plants can provide low-carbon electricity for as long as 60 years. It is predicted that by 2030 the amount of electricity generated from nuclear power could double to 619GW by 2030.

In Europe concerns are growing regarding the dangers of an excessive reliance on Russian gas supplies, the nuclear industry is staging a comeback, and not only in Italy. France and Finland are building reactors, the UK plans to launch a large nuclear programme and Spain has delayed the planned shutdown of its oldest reactor, opening the door to extending the lives of its other facilities. Sweden, has began the legislative process to overturn a ban on nuclear energy and Germany is also reconsidering its nuclear phase-out. Nuclear power has gained support as energy independence becomes an increasingly significant political issue.

However, the return to nuclear power could be limited by the difficulty of rebuilding the supply chain after such a long break, low carbon prices and policy and regulation. Political and environmental opposition to the construction of nuclear facilities could lead to lengthy delays, yet Italy is already vulnerable to nuclear disasters as many French nuclear power stations are located near the Italian border. Though developments look promising for the nuclear industry, most countries are still at the stage of applying for planning and regulatory approval.

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