Last weekend, Italian voters said no to nuclear energy for the second time since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago.
Italy is not alone in refusing to handle nuclear energy. The Fukushima incidents have driven home the point that, even in a country that is very strict on safety standards, nuclear energy is not safe. Fukushima has proven that no amount of safeguards can render nuclear energy 100 per cent safe. Though accidents are bound to happen irrespective of the technology used, the risks associated with nuclear technology are such that they can easily wipe out life from the affected area in a very short time.
Last weekend’s no has a particular significance for Malta as this means an end to plans for the construction of a nuclear power plant at Palma di Montechiaro on Sicily’s southern coast, less than 100 kilometres from the Maltese islands.
Germany’s Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition government, faced with the resounding victory of the Greens in the Länd of Baden-Württemberg, has made a policy U-turn. As a direct effect of the Greens-led opposition to Germany’s nuclear programme, Germany will be nuclear-energy free as from 2022, by which date all existing nuclear power installations will be phased out. In doing so, the Merkel government has, once and for all, accepted the Green-Red coalition agreement on a complete nuclear phaseout.
Even Switzerland is planning not to make use of its existing nuclear plants beyond their scheduled projected life. The Swiss government will be submitting to Parliament a proposal not to replace existing nuclear plants. The process is scheduled to commence in 2019 and will conclude with the closure of the last Swiss nuclear reactor in 2034.
After the Tunisian revolution, Abdelkader Zitouni, the leader of Tunisie Verte, the Tunisian Green party, has called on Tunisia’s transitional government to repudiate the Franco-Tunisian agreement for the provision of nuclear technology by France. Hopefully, the same will happen when the Administration of Libya is back to normal.
There are other Mediterranean neighbours that are interested in the construction of nuclear plants. Libya and Tunisia were joined by Algeria, Morocco and Egypt in reacting positively to Nicolas Sarkozy, the peripatetic nuclear salesman during the past four years.
Malta could do without nuclear energy installations on its doorstep. Italy’s decision and the policy being advocated by Mr Zitouni are a welcome start. It would be wishful thinking to imagine Foreign Minister Tonio Borg taking the initiative in campaigning for a Mediterranean free of nuclear energy even though this is in Malta’s interest.
It is a very healthy sign that Malta’s neighbours together with Germany and Switzerland are repudiating the use of nuclear energy. Their no to nuclear energy is simultaneously a yes to renewable energy. This will necessarily lead to more efforts, research and investment in renewable energy generation as it is the only reasonable way to make up for the shortfall between energy supply and demand.
A case in point is the Desertec project, which is still in its infancy. The Desertec initiative is based on the basic fact that six hours of solar energy incident on the world’s deserts exceeds the amount of energy used all over the globe in one whole year. Given that more than 90 per cent of the world’s population lives within 3,000 kilometres of a desert, the Desertec initiative considers that most of the world’s energy needs can be economically met through tapping the solar energy that can be captured from the surface of the deserts.
The technology is available and has been extensively tested in the Mojave Desert, California, in Alvarado (Badajoz), Spain and in the Negev Desert in Israel where new plants generating solar energy on a large scale have been in operation for some time. The Desertec project envisages that Europe’s energy needs can be met through tapping the solar energy incident on the Sahara desert. The problems that have to be surmounted are of a technical and of a geopolitical nature.
On the technical front, solutions are being developed to address more efficient storage and the efficient transmission of the electricity generated.
The Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and, hopefully, the successful conclusion of the Libyan revolution will address the other major concern: that of energy security. The movement towards democracy in North Africa can contribute towards the early success of the Desertec project in tapping solar energy in the Sahara desert for use in both Northern Africa and in Europe.
While Malta stands to gain economically and environmentally through the realisation of such a project, I have yet to hear the government’s enthusiasm and commitment even if the project is still in its initial stages.
Malta is committed in favour of the pro-democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Benghazi. Being surrounded by democratic neighbours is a definitely positive geopolitical development. If properly nurtured, this would enhance Malta’s economic development, energy security and environmental protection concerns.
by Carmel Cacopardo
published 10 August 2008
The site where French Company Areva is constructing the Olkiluoto 3, the French designed European Pressurised Reactor
In 2007, Sarkozy’s government signed agreements with nine Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries on nuclear exports and cooperation. He is desperately trying to sell the French designed European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), the flagship of the so-called “nuclear renaissance” despite the fact that the only construction attempts of the EPR in Finland and France have been disastrous.
The Finnish Olkiluoto 3 reactor is two-and-a-half years behind schedule, and costs have doubled to just short of €5 billion. The French nuclear safety authority has shut down the French construction site at Flamanville after just six months due to chronic safety problems.
In the Mediterranean, France has expressed an interest in the construction of nuclear plants in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia.
Libya’s reactor will supply energy for the desalination of seawater from the Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey’s first nuclear reactor is planned for Akkuyu Bay near the Mediterranean port of Mersin. It is scheduled to be in operation by 2015. Akkuyu Bay is situated in an earthquake prone zone on the Mediterranean coast north of Cyprus.
The Akkuyu reactor has been in the pipeline since 1996 but has been continuously postponed due to controversy surrounding the underestimation of the earthquake risks involved. Tenders will be issued in September 2008 and French Company Areva (90 per cent State owned) will most probably be competing with American giant General Electric for the tender. Turkey is planning to construct a second nuclear power plant at Sinop on the coast of the Black Sea.
Egypt’s nuclear reactor is under construction at El Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast.
Italy, through its Minister for Economic Development Claudio Scajola, has declared itself in favour of nuclear energy. On 26 July Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore reporting on Berlusconi’s joint press conference with Maltese Premier Lawrence Gonzi hinted at unofficial rumblings that Italy wants to set up nuclear reactors in Albania, Montenegro and Malta. It was only after being prodded by Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party that the Department of Information in Malta emerged from hibernation to deny that the matter was ever discussed between the Maltese and Italian delegations.
A Maltese delegation visits Libya: the matter of the Franco-Libyan nuclear reactor is not on the agenda. A Foreign Office official was quoted as stating that it is a non-issue, of interest only to the press.
In the meantime, in the first seven months of 2008, eight nuclear incidents have taken place on the European mainland (see box) three of them in France. Some of them are minor incidents, which could however have developed into major ones had safety precautions failed to come into operation. The French incidents are the most serious and occurred in July within a 21-day timeframe.
The French incidents have contaminated a water source and exposed 97 workers to excessive radiation from radioactive Cobalt 56. The Guardian, published in Manchester on 26 July, reported the reactions of residents living close to the Tricastin nuclear plant on the outskirts of Bolléne. “I always trusted that nuclear was totally secure. But now I wonder, have there been other accidents in the past we haven’t been told about?” In a country long accustomed to nuclear energy, which accounts for 80 per cent of all energy generated in France, this comment is significant. The nuclear leak, states Angelique Chrisafis reporting for The Guardian from Bolléne, “has shaken French trust in nuclear safety and embarrassed Nicolas Sarkozy as he crusades for a French-led world renaissance in atomic power.” The first casualty is the market for nuclear energy in the UK.
Almost concurrently with these happenings the Union of the Mediterranean has endorsed the Mediterranean Solar Plan, pushed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This involves making use of the sun’s energy on the Sahara Desert to generate electricity for Europe’s use. The world’s sun belt in the Sahara desert can provide a solution and an alternative to the spiralling fuel costs.
Alok Jha, science correspondent of The Guardian reported on 23 July that an area slightly smaller than Wales in the Saharan Desert could one day generate enough solar energy to supply all of Europe with clean energy. The project is a long term one envisaging massive investments to the tune of €450 billion. Its effectiveness however will be dependent on technological innovations that are still at an experimental stage – primarily the capacity to store electricity generated when the sun doesn’t shine. Storing solar energy is currently both expensive and inefficient. Experiments are currently underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which, if successful could lead the way to a large scale low cost use of solar energy.
In his article entitled “Solar Power from Saharan Sun could provide Europe’s electricity, says EU”, Alok Jha emphasises that harnessing the sun in the Sahara would be more effective because the sunlight there is more intense. It is estimated that photovoltaic panels installed in the Sahara could generate three times the electricity similar panels installed in Northern Europe generate. Some doubt whether this amount of electricity could be generated. In addition, when transporting electricity over large distances issues of losses would assume a greater significance.
The major costs of the project would be related to upgrading the grid networks and infrastructure in the Southern Mediterranean countries.
Would Malta feature in such a project?
Algeria is projecting the annual export of 6,000 Mega Watts of solar-power generated to Europe by 2020. The Saharan project would take longer (up to 2050) to reach its projected annual output of 100 Giga Watts.
On the other hand, the Italian nuclear project would take between 10 and 20 years to materialise (ie between 2018 and 2028), yet the Maltese government considers it expedient to consider linking Malta to the Italian electricity grid.
Other Mediterranean countries such as Portugal and Spain have invested heavily in solar technology. On 13 June, the Jerusalem Post reported the launching of an American-Israeli experimental solar technology plant in Israel’s Negev desert.
Described as the “highest performance, lowest cost thermal solar system in the world”, this technology makes use of computer-guided flat mirrors known as heliostats to track the sun and focus its rays on a boiler at the top of a 200-foot tower. The water inside the boiler turns to steam, powering a turbine and subsequently producing electricity. The project is at a final testing stage and is planned to complete full-sized facilities in California’s Mojave Desert by 2011. It is estimated that this technology could cut costs associated with solar energy by 30 to 50 per cent.
This is the technology of the future that will be available shortly and depends exclusively on the sun’s rays that are beamed in our direction free of charge. Yet, Malta’s mainstream politicians look elsewhere.
Solar energy is an area Malta could tap jointly with Libya for mutual benefit. Both countries are blessed with a bountiful sun available all year round, which, if adequately used, is sufficient for all of Malta’s and Libya’s needs.
So, who needs nuclear energy in the world’s sun belt? Solar energy comes free and it’s safe.
Nuclear accidents this year
29 May – Rovno (Ukraine): Ruptured pipe supplying water to reactor. 1.3 cubic metres of coolant water escapes.
3 June –Dukovany (Czech Republic): Plant’s automated safety system cut output from one of its reactors after a worker mistakenly turned off coolant pipes.
4 June – Krško (Slovenia): 3 cubic metres water leaked from reactor cooling system. Reactor safely shut down.
7 July – Tricastin (France): 30,000 litres of liquid containing 12 grammes of uranium per litre spilled into ground and into Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers.
11 July – Varbourg (Sweden): Fire breaks out on roof of Ringhals nuclear plant turbine facility.
18 July – Roman Sur Isere (France): Radioactive leak from buried broken pipe.
23 July – Tricastin (France): Workers exposed to radioactive particles escaping from a ruptured pipe from plant. Ninety-seven staff had to be evacuated and sent for medical tests. Seventy showed low traces of radio-elements.
29 July – Biblis (Germany): One of Germany’s 17 functioning nuclear reactors automatically shuts down after crane snagged an electric power cable outside nuclear compound.