by Alessandro Graziadei – Unimondo*
Despite two referendums against nuclear power, Italian MPs, both in Government and in opposition, in line with the ‘nuclearist’ Countries at COP28 (with the announcement of the commitment signed by 22 Countries to triple nuclear generation capacity by 2050), regularly present the fairy tale of “clean and safe”, “next generation” nuclear power, consisting of “small modular reactors” (still on paper), as ‘the’ solution in the inevitable path of decarbonisation to meet European and Italian energy needs for the next 30 years. While nuclear energy currently plays a significant role in the global energy mix, contributing 10% to electricity production (rising to 25.4% in the European Union), the International Energy Agency (IEA) had already outlined in 2021 a path to zero emissions by 2050, in which “90% of global electricity production could easily come from renewables (currently at 29%, including hydropower), with 70% from solar and wind.”
The physicist, climatologist and science communicator Roberto Barbiero gave a detailed insight into the specific reasons for the continued interest in developing nuclear energy on the website of the Youth Press Agency. Today we would like to focus on an often overlooked and unresolved issue when it comes to nuclear energy in Italy: nuclear waste. The use of radioactivity and its energetic properties leads to the production of radioactive materials that, when no longer usable, become radioactive waste that must be properly managed to avoid risks to man and the environment.
In Italy, the radioactive waste generated so far by hospitals and mainly from our previous ‘nuclearist’ experience, which lasted from 1963 to 1990 and was closed with the 1987 referendum (and never reopened, thanks also to the 2011 referendum), has been sent abroad or is still stored in “temporary” deposits. Unfortunately, it has never been possible to create a National Repository and Technology Park to provide safe and permanent storage, as a suitable site has never been found. On 14 December, after years of anticipation, the Ministry for the Environment and Energy Safety (MASE) published the list of areas identified in the National Map of Suitable Areas (CNAI), which identifies zones in Italy for the construction of the National Radioactive Waste Repository and the Technological Park to facilitate permanent storage.
However, as none of the municipalities identified in the suitable areas have come forward over the years to host the repository, showing clear opposition to its location on their territory, a note from the ministry now states that “Territorial entities whose areas are not included in the CNAI proposal, as well as the Ministry of Defence for the relevant military facilities, may, within thirty days of the publication of the map [on 14 December], submit their self-candidacy to host the National Repository and the Technological Park. They can ask MASE and Sogin to initiate a re-evaluation of the territory itself to verify its potential suitability.”
Is this a turning point? According to the environmental NGO Legambiente, “the usual Italian mess has been made again on the question of suitable areas for the national nuclear waste repository” because it would be “absurd to allow self-candidacies even from municipalities not included in the CNAI.” In fact, the possibility of such self-candidacy suggests a less rigorous and less citizen-safety-oriented path, inevitably lengthening the time for identifying the repository, which is a real urgency for the safety of the entire Country.
Until 14 December 2010, Italy relied on Legislative Decree 31 of 2010 to identify a site where this Repository could pose the least possible risk to anyone. This decree outlined a selection procedure based on exclusion criteria established by national and international regulators. Following this legislation, Sogin, the state-owned company responsible for managing decommissioned nuclear facilities and securing radioactive waste, had identified 51 areas deemed suitable for the national Repository through a lengthy and somewhat convoluted participatory process. Now, instead, territorial entities whose areas are considered unsuitable and are not included in the CNAI proposal can submit their candidature to host the national Repository and the Technology Park.
According to the national president of Legambiente, Stefano Ciafani, this is a contradiction: “Why should the territories of these municipalities now be considered ‘suitable’ to host the national nuclear waste repository, when they did not meet the strict requirements during the evaluation phase? An incomprehensible ‘parallel path’ has been taken, diverging from the one followed until now, just to allow rejected municipalities to re-enter the race with their candidatures.” According to Ciafani, “the Repository is needed, it is urgent, too much time has already been lost, and it must be built for low and intermediate level waste.
For high-level waste, given the negligible quantity fortunately produced in Italy during its short nuclear history, work must be carried out at the European level, as required by the EU directive, to identify a geologically suitable and as safe as possible Repository to accommodate the most radioactive waste, mainly produced by those countries that have produced significant quantities of this type of waste over the last seventy years without finding a solution to close what has become a vicious circle”.
The need for a single Repository for radioactive materials arises from the necessity of cooperation within the EU and from the fact that Italy has accumulated radioactive waste produced over the last century although it no longer uses nuclear power plants. As a result of the dismantling and reclamation of nuclear sites and the ongoing production for medical or industrial purposes, radioactive waste is currently stored throughout the national territory in dozens of unsuitable sites, posing serious and unjustifiable risks to everyone. This is precisely why it is so important to stick strictly to the path outlined by the CNAI and to avoid pointless advances that would undermine the credibility of what has been done so far, exposing the country to longer deadlines and unnecessary risks.
The impression is that this is a politically more convenient and less problematic path, as it could save the Government from making an unpopular but better choice for the country. Instead, the decision is offloaded onto some expendable and reckless municipality, albeit one less suited to hosting the single Repository and its Technology Park. Possibly the potential reckless mayor will be rewarded with a future parliamentary seat or national political role.
On the cover photo, dismissed thermo nuclear power plant cooling towers in Trino Vercellese, Italy ©pcruciatti/Shutterstock.com
* Unimondo founded on 10 December 1998, under the auspices of the Fontana Onlus Foundation, is an online news outlet dedicated to providing authoritative content on peace, sustainable human development, human rights and environmental issues. It offers diverse and timely information, amplifying the voices of different facets of Italian and global civil society. As the Italian hub of the OneWorld network, founded in London in 1995, it is part of a global network with 11 centres worldwide and 1,600 partner associations