Energy Transition is one of the contemporary “burning issues”. Energy is at the core of the current debates on science, geopolitics, economics as well as geoeconomics. The international community, on the heels of concerns of global warming and climate change, is now more protagonist and active than ever in national debates and political battles. The global system of international relations is every day more and more shaken by different and unprecedented threats to ordinary peace and balances. One of the most dreaded menaces is linked to what scientists define as “climate change”: environmental disasters, famines and droughts, economic shocks and migration crisis are all issues that maintain a clear and indisputable connection with this macro-problem. As a result the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases, on one hand, and the new quest for alternative energy resources and the need to engage in the conceptualization of up-to-date chain productions, on the other hand, are considered among top priorities in the most influential government agendas worldwide. Notwithstanding, it is clear that both factual evidence and global opinion are pushing the international community towards a radical transformation of social ecosystems in terms of already-established human organizations, ways of inhabiting the planet and entire production systems. Some economists call it the “fourth industrial revolution”, whereas some scientists claim we are witnessing “renewables revolution”. Thus, energy is clearly the nucleus of this historic dramatic change as energy, first of all, means motion and work in accordance with science principles. Yet, when the general debate comes to trusting science in order to find practical solutions for the upcoming emergences and, more in detail, to updating energetics as we know it, there is no common and unquestionable agreement on how this “green revolution” should be: while a more ideological and hardline approach considers as “renewables” only those “mainstream” (i.e., solar energy, hydrogen(s), wind energy, geothermics and so on), there is even a way more pragmatic and “possibilist” line of thought which include nuclear energy as well in this list. There are two main explanations as regards that: firstly, nuclear energy itself is considered to be likely to positively shape the new collective demand of “green energy” in order to reduce hypothetical economic and employment shocks; secondly, nuclear energy is expected to be not as dangerous as in the recent past as the last developments and researches in technology are making it way safer and trustworthy. That is the reason behind this dossier, therefore: in this paper I shall discuss the contemporary aspects of global nuclear energy policy with a view to economic analysis as well as scientific and geopolitical perspective as nowadays, in times of energy transition, energy is included by now in a global interweaving of political and geoeconomical relations between States.
THE CONTEMPORARY DEVELOPMENT OF NUCLEAR ENERGY BETWEEN SCIENCE, ECONOMICS AND GEOPOLITICS:
Radioactivity is a consistent and constant part of our planet. Mankind has always been exposed to natural radiations arising from many sources such as human body, environment and earth surface. Thus, radioactivity is a phenomenon strictly intrinsic in nature and it is clearly associated with its physical/chemical composition: this is the reason why it needs an easy and clear introduction to the structure and function of atom to be fully understood. So, all materials in the universe are composed of basic substances, called chemical elements; the smallest particles into which an element can be divided are called atoms. Atoms, in turn, consist of smaller particles forming the nucleus, called protons and neutrons, and around it some other particles move in a circling cloud. These are called electrons. As it is clear, atom is at the heart of physical nature, it results to be the key of its overall functioning and living. Radioactivity comes from radioactive elements in which the atoms are unstable and breakdown to generate atoms of another element. This decay releases radiations with highly energetic electromagnetictic waves. The traditional production of nuclear energy takes origin from a process called “nuclear fission”. Some of the most radioactive elements, belonging to the terrestrial surface, are uranium and thorium for instance. In common nuclear centrals, uranium is used as a primarcy source and the aforementioned process does work as it follows: uranium’s nucleus is hit by a highly energetic neutron’s beam and when the neutron impact on the nucleus and so this latter splits into two smaller nuclei generating energy, heat and many identical energy chain reactions. This is why this source is also called “thermonuclear energy”. (https://www.enea.it/en).
One of the positive aspects of thermonuclear comes from the original physical process at the base of its production: a small quantity of uranium precedes huge quantity of final energy, making it cheap and advantageous. Moreover, nuclear energy is the most practical and succesfull solution for States to achieve energy autarchy and easy systematic supply. Last but not least, nuclear fission does not release any greenhouse gas in the atmosphere such as methane and carbon dioxide, with great results in independence from market fluctuations, cost of energy and thus economic development as well.
However, on the other side, thermonuclear energy hides some problems concerning radioactive waste storage originating from nuclear fission itself: indeed, one of the energy-generating process’ results is the unwanted production of highly contaminated and radioactive waste, that is to say those metals and objects that have been used in the meantime. There are two sides of the problem: on one hand, this waste represents a danger to the human because once that the contact is reached DNA is irreversibly modified; on the other hand, the disposal of nuclear waste is hard and really time consuming. Following every single process of energy production, radioactive waste is collected and stocked safely. Then, long time is needed (even thousand of years!) to finally see radiations out of stocks and to avoid environmental contamination. This is the only possible solution as long as science does not offer any technical solution to dispose of waste. Another important question is, therefore, that one regarding the risk of environmental contamination and risk management inside nuclear centrals. Even though, according to the World Nuclear Association (https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/world-nuclear-power-reactors- and-uranium-requireme.aspx), 97% of nuclear waste consists of low-intermediate level waste the remaining 3%, accounting for 95% of radioactivity, is considered high level and has serious consequences on humans and ecosystems in case of accidental dispersion. This hypothetical danger, that in recent history found a confirmation in the accidents of Chernobyl 1986 and Fukushima 2011, is not uniquely associated with progress in safety systems but also it is linked to unexpected natural phenomena such as tsunamis or earthquakes. Thus public opinion, influenced by various security issues as well as by those disasters, is lead to still keep skepticist views upon nuclear energy domestic usage, even though common perceptions are gradually changing in line with increasing problems with global energy supply (https://thebulletin.org/2016/04/public-opinion-on-nuclear-energy-what-influences-it/), climate change and technological progress as well. So, it seems that nowadays nuclear energy is coming back on the rise and it is turning to be gradually part of the global Great Energy Game.
China, for instance, has developed in the last decade a systematic and counter-trending plan of atomic development. The reasons behind this choice ask to be traced back to the necessity of: diversifying coal as a resource, reducing air pollution, developing a national self-sufficient atomic chain and then exporting its energetic know-how globally. The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that since 2012, China has been the country with the largest installed power capacity and it has increased this by 85% since then to reach a quarter of global capacity in 2019 at last. China’s main policy is to have a closed nuclear fuel cycle. Back in 2013 the State Council said that China should reduce its carbon emissions by 40-45% by 2020 and would aim to boost renewables to 15% of its overall primary resources consumption by 2020. In the following year, in 2014, the Premier said that the Government was declaring “War on Pollution” and would accellerate closing coal-fired power stations. A draft of the last energetic plan seems to confirm these forecasts: 14th five year plan (2021-2025) showed government plans to reach 70GWe gross of nuclear capacity by the end of 2025, then officially lowered to 58GWe. The “Three-Step-Strategy” has a long term perspective too: indeed China aims to make the management of nuclear fusion possible by 2050 in order to reach then the last phase, during the second half of 21st century, when fusion reactors will be supported by fast complement breeder reactors with Russian technical support by Atomstroyexport company (https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Hibbs_ChinaNuclear_Final.pdf). In line with that, it is fundamental to mention the last incredible result of EAST Tokamak in nuclear fusion field in May 2021, setting a new record in plasma reaction, power-generating heat and management capacity with more than 120 million Celsius degrees for over 100 seconds overall (https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a36630528/china-artificial-sun-breaks-fusion-world-record/).
On the other geopolitical side, Russia can historically count on a very good tradition of scientific research and industrial know-how in the nuclear field, instead, and this is internationally recognized. Russia’s top company in this sector is State Atomic Energy Corporation-Rosatom: it is a global multi-industry being the largest electricity producer in Russian Federation as well as engaged into low carbon generation and UN Global Compact for sustainable development. Its main field is the research and development of nuclear power utilization, atomic industry, nuclear weapons industry and nuclear safety (https://www.rosatom.ru/en/about-us/). Rosatom is based on the long-term technological policy and it has set a four-long-term agenda by 2030 that consists of some important steps: increasing the international market share by expanding its presence in new and more countries with export products (i.e. construction of nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment services etc) to assert its leadership in global nuclear sectory; reducing production costs and the lead time, by reaching technological development of digitalization and 4.0 industry revolutionary processes; developing new products for Russian and international markets, such as fast neutron reactors and a closed nuclear fuel cycle; achieving global leadership in state-of-the-art technology as well, leveraging the achievements of nuclear science and modern technology for the benefit of humanity. Thus, Rosatom is developing its 2030 strategy with the main goal of ensuring nuclear safety through technological progress and new processes, putting innovation at the center. According to long-term agenda, Rosatom should do what follows: granting safe usage of atomic energy; preventing the negative environmental impact; ensuring that the use of nuclear energy is socially acceptable; improving energy efficiency in management system. In order to achieve these goals, Rosatom has theorized an environmental safety agenda for Global Sustainable Development as well in which is declared as strategic what follows: giving priority to preserving natural ecosystems; ensuring environmental safety as a mandatory requirement; making informations on environmental aspects publicly available. Moreover, the nuclear safety agenda is supplemented with another official program on energy efficiency management system for energy conservation, which is fundamental to ensure an efficient use of energy resources in the nuclear industry as well as finalizing competitiveness and reducing environmental impact. Thus, Rosatom uses the following tools for achieving its corporative goals: developing a plan for energy conservation at all levels; monitoring the achievement of energy efficiency; having formalized energy requirements for investments and procurement activities (https://rosatom.ru/upload/iblock/0c1/0c106b40899f365fd8c2a6be935b092b.pdf).
While, on the other side and at the same time, the EU is following a communitarian path which consists of some three steps: green-ecologic transition, energy policy-coordination and progressive autonomisation towards the concept of “Energy Community” and “Strategic Authonomy”. This is a complex strategy that implies the EU as an emerging actor in a highly competitive and unstable geopolitical world and so, in that sense, ensuring energy safety within the european community is crucial. Nowadays, nuclear energy constitutes about a quarter of the electricity and half of the low-carbon electricity overall. The usage of atomic energy for industrial purposes has always been at the core of european economic and political integration: this is the case of Euratom, which is the main research programme for nuclear research and training. Euratom was established by the Euratom Treaty in 1957 and nowadays its mission is to pursue nuclear research with an emphasis on nuclear safety and security, particularly with regard to the mission of contributing to the long term decarbonisation of the contintental energy system in a safe and efficient way. The Euratom Program focuses on two main areas: nuclear fission and radiation protection, fusion research aiming at developing magnetic confinement fusion as an energy source. Moreover, the Euratom Programme emphasize the development of nuclear skills and competence with the aim of maintaining European world leadership in nuclear safety and waste management, attaining the highest level of protection from radiation. What is more, Euratom supports: the development and sustainability of nuclear expertise and excellence in the EU; the promotion of industrial competitiveness and innovation; the defense and promotion of research infrastructures of pan-European relevance (https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/euratom). Then, moving on to the political and institutional side, the EU represents an archetypal example as Bruxelles cooperates with non-EU countries and international organizations on nuclear safety: for instance, in 2013, a MOU was signed with the IAEA to enhance the mutual cooperation yet it is equally noteworthy the fact that the Commission, on behalf of the Euratom, regularly takes part in meeting and conventions on Nuclear Safety. Additionally, at a communitarian level, the EU organizes each year the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF), which is an annual forum that brings together national governments, EU institutions, industry representatives and regulators as well as civil society to discuss opportunities and risks of nuclear energy (https://ec.europa.eu/energy/topics/nuclear-energy/nuclear-safety_en#international-cooperation).
To conclude, turning to the subject of innovation and scientific research in nuclear energy field, it is widely believed that the main achievement will be the management of “nuclear fusion” sooner or later. Scientists, researcher and governants are pushing towards a future implementation of it through institutional research and development due to its extraordinary potential and the dramatic effect it may have on economies and civil societies in terms of unlimited, cheap and totally clean energy. Nuclear fusion follows the contrary process of nuclear fission: in a managed nuclear fusion, two smaller and light nuclei combine together in order to form a single heavier one (often called “the sun”) while releasing massive amounts of energy without the risk of contamination and the problem of waste storage and disposal. Nuclear fusion is very difficult to achieve cause it needs immensely high temperatures to reach this fusion between atomic nuclei. This is only possible through a magnetic confinement device called “Tokamak”, a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. Plasma reaction consists of a consequential process that aims at producing controlled thermonuclear fusion (https://www.iaea.org/fusion-energy/what-is-fusion-and-why-is-it-so-difficult-to-achieve) and so to create the “artificial sun”. Within the Tokamak, the changing magnetic fields that are used to control the plasma produce a heating effect. The magnetic fields create a high-intensity electrical current through induction and as this current travels through the plasma, electrons and ions become energized and collide. (https://www.igi.cnr.it/en/research/magnetic-confinement-research-in-padova/tokamak-physics/)
Thus, along with the development of some other technical devices for the production of nuclear energy such as the “fast breeder reactors”, the future of atom is being determined already by the race to “thermonuclear fusion” through the enhancement of Tokamak.
Junior Fellow del think tank “Il Nodo di Gordio”
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