How public opinion can dramatically influence the energy mix of a country

Jan 25, 2020

On April 26, 1986 in the city of Chernobyl, former Soviet Ukraine, the biggest nuclear accident of all time occurred. 

During a safety test in the RBMK reactor 4, a sudden steam explosion occurred and a fire started, releasing a significant amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Several operators and firemen died from acute exposure to radiation during a period of three months after the accident. In the following years, countless people suffered the consequences of this accident, with numerous cases of thyroid cancer appearing in the residents of the most affected regions. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were the most affected areas due to a severe contamination of ecosystems caused by high levels of radiation. An exclusion zone of 30 Km was created, from which several thousands of people were relocated. Later investigations proved that this accident was mainly due to poorly trained workers, in combination with the reactor design characteristics, which made possible to reach such an unstable behavior. 

This event, now known as the Chernobyl Disaster, shaped the history of the former Soviet Union and the history of nuclear energy in the rest of the world. For instance, one of the countries with the most extreme policies resulting from this accident was Italy. 
This accident triggered drastic changes in the Italian energy system and energy mix. Consequently, this also affected the international energy relations that Italy needed to have in order to keep fulfilling the country’s demand, without nuclear energy in the generation mix. 

Before the Chernobyl Disaster, in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident had already affected the Italian public perception of this technology. However, due to the small radiation release and limited damage to human beings, Italian policies implemented at that time were far from radical, most notably Italy appointed a commission for nuclear energy safety. A few years later, in between these two accidents, the majority of the countries around the world implemented multiple safety measures and protocols to improve the reliability of nuclear reactors. Therefore, the confidence in the technology started to reappear amongst academics. 

At the beginning of the 80’s, when Italy still had reactors operating, the 4th National Energy Plan was instituted. This plan accounted for the construction of several new nuclear power plants to provide a capacity of at least 6,000 MW. This would help Italy to diversify their generation mix and diminish their enormous dependence on oil imports, that had already proven problematic during the 1973 Oil Crisis. 

By this time, anti-nuclear demonstrations and an unfavorable public opinion about nuclear energy were already felt among the Italian population. Nonetheless, the 4th Energy National Plan was passed in 1986, providing the construction of two more plants, in Montalto di Castro and Piemont, and the localization of two other plants. It was also decided on the acquisition of 30% of a joint venture between EDF and RWE to build fast breeder reactors (NERSA, Nucléaire Européenne à Neutron Rapid S.A.). 

Coincidently, the approval of the 4th Energy National Plan, which would be known as the last significant attempt of a nuclear plan in Italy, came just 36 days before the Chernobyl accident. 
After the 1986 disaster, the public debate and polemic about nuclear energy were brought to life. Demonstrations across the country started and signature collection for a referendum began. The construction of Montalto di Castro stopped and the referendum took place at the end of 1987. 

In this referendum, three questions were asked regarding nuclear energy. By Italian law, the referendum could not decide on ending the nuclear program but only on specific laws. The referendum focused on laws regarding compensations, locations and ability of the Italian Nationalised Energy Company (ENEL) to participate in international nuclear energy programmes. Some critics argued that the questions were too technical for a normal citizen to answer. Nevertheless, the results were clearly against continuing a nuclear energy programme. The public opinion and environmental organisations pressured the government to phase out nuclear energy and, in the following years, the nuclear programme in Italy came to an end. The Montalto di Castro Power Plant that was under construction was remodeled for another technology and the plants that were close to the end of their lifetime were dismantled. The last Italian reactor was shut down in 1990. 
Directly linked to these events, two new coal power plants were constructed and two more were expanded. By this time, the dependence on fossil sources increased and the choice of natural gas instead of oil became evident. This complete phase-out of nuclear energy made Italian electricity prices rise above the European average until this day. 

In the aftermath, Italy became heavily dependent on importation of gas from Russia and North Africa, as well as electricity from France, Switzerland and Slovenia (in which, ironically, nuclear energy is one of the main electricity generation technologies). All of this made Italy extremely vulnerable and dependent on these countries. 
Moving forward with the 4th Energy National Plan would also result in dependence on other countries in order to get uranium, but it would lead to a more diverse set of countries such as Canada, Australia, Niger and Namibia to enter the list of possible suppliers. Furthermore, with the problem of global warming, this plan would have been an important contributor to keep Italy’s carbon emissions down. 

This problem was especially noticeable in 2008 after the increase in oil prices due to instabilities in the Middle East. Later, problems arising from the gas supply from Russia, thanks to the conflict with Ukraine, also placed a threat to the Italian security of supply and energy price stability. By this time, the Italian Government decided on a plan to build ten new nuclear power plants, to provide for 25% of electricity. 

In 2011, a new accident occurred, this time in Fukushima, Japan and the programme was canceled, due to a recurrent negative public opinion followed by this third accident. 

In 2018, Italy became the second largest importer of Russian natural gas, after Germany, surpassing Turkey. Germany and Italy combined represent nearly 50% of the EU gas imports from Russia, which is seen as problematic by the European Union, whose wishes are to become increasingly more independent from Russia. 

The Chernobyl Disaster proved to be far more than a national security issue. It also showed how a critical event affects and unleashes citizen movements which in this case changed the energy mix of a country and made Italy extremely vulnerable and dependent on other countries. It also shows that source diversification is crucial to maintain the stability of the prices and independency on the international political scene. 


By: Constança Martins Leite de Almeida

Published on: 25.01.2020


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