Focus Projects


Nuclear energy: Generation IV reactors to be developed in Italy

The ENEA-newcleo agreement: research at Brasimone Research Centre (near Bologna) will explore the development of innovative nuclear reactors for the production of clean and safe energy

The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the uncertain developments in the energy field are increasingly focusing the international debate on alternative energy resources to Russian gas to foster Europe’s energy independence.

After considering renewables and coal, the discussion has also returned to nuclear energy. In this regard, ENEA has just announced an agreement for the development of small innovative nuclear systems for the production of safe, clean and inexhaustible energy, to be carried out outside Italy by the London-based company, newcleo. Established in 2021, newcleo is composed of young experienced staff that, thanks to their great expertise in the field of nuclear energy and the combination of existing and accessible technologies, is giving life to the next generation of nuclear systems.

ENEA’s unique know how in the field of liquid lead will be exploited for this international innovative research project. ENEA will provide the infrastructure, expertise and professionalism of Brasimone Research Centre (Bologna), which is active in the research and development of technologies for innovative energy systems, nuclear fusion, materials and liquid metals. Thanks to this project, the Apennines area is once again demonstrating to be an attractive pole for investment in innovation and research. Bologna’s Tecnopolo will soon join in the industrial and occupational development of the area, where construction of the infrastructure that will host the largest ENEA Research Center on circular economy and sustainability is currently underway.

The ENEA-newcleo agreement will also lead to greater exploitation of the Brasimone Center: most likely, part of the engineers of the newcleo team will move there for about ten years and new investments exceeding 50 million euros will be devoted to ENEA’s local research infrastructure.

The project includes the creation of small Advanced Modular Reactors cooled by lead instead of water, which are much simpler and more reliable. The first prototypes of these Generation IV nuclear systems will be developed within the next seven years. Then, they will be marketed internationally to replace the current Generation II and III reactors.

ENEA and newcleo collaboration will also lead to the creation of an electrical prototype of the LFR (Lead-cooled Fast Reactor) system with no use of radioactive materials or nuclear fuel. This will open the way to in-depth studies of thermo-fluid dynamics, mechanical and functional performance, and the design of the ADS (Accelerator Driven System), resulting in drastic reduction in the volume of nuclear waste.

The working group will consist of ENEA and newcleo personnel. They will exchange information and knowledge for the alignment of trials on new nuclear systems to develop equipment and technological codes jointly.

"Over the past 20 years, ENEA has conducted a wide range of studies and research in this area, where it has achieved a leading position internationally," emphasized Gilberto Dialuce, ENEA President. "This agreement will allow us to collaborate to ensure safe, long-term production of electricity in plants that will be built abroad, but with significant investment and employment impacts locally. Actually, the activities set out in the agreement with newcleo will be carried out at Brasimone Research Centre, in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines, where other strategic projects are also underway with the Emilia-Romagna Regional Administration. For example, the development of fusion technologies and the production of radiopharmaceuticals for cancer diagnosis and treatment", he added.

The history of nuclear power in Italy: the risks that led to Italy’s energy dependence

The nuclear systems envisaged by the ENEA-newcleo project will not be located in Italy, but in areas where the establishment of nuclear power plants is accepted. As is known, our country turned away from this energy source several years ago.

In the early 1970s, due to rising gas and oil prices following the Arab-Israeli conflict, Italy embraced nuclear power as a good alternative for energy independence, and the National Energy Plan of those years included the setting up of other nuclear power plants. Actually, Italy already counted on four existing power plants:

  • Latina power plant of 210 MWe with Magnox reactor, operating since 1964;
  • Garigliano power plant at Sessa Aurunca (Caserta), of 160 MWe with boiling water nuclear reactor (BWR), operating since 1964;
  • Enrico Fermi power plant at Trino (Vercelli), of 270 MWe with pressurized water nuclear reactor (PWR), operating since 1965, and
  • Caorso (Piacenza) power plant, of 860 MWe with BWR reactor, operating since 1981.

The 1979 accident at Three Miles Island in Pennsylvania, which recorded no victims or major damage, triggered attention and disappointment towards nuclear power. However, despite the initial demonstrations against this technology, the current Italian government proceeded along the path taken to expand the country’s energy mix and reduce its dependence on imported oil.

Then, the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986 changed everything. The population’s fear and mistrust towards nuclear power plants became apparent in the outcome of a national referendum launched the following year, which decreed the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, although this was not even among explicit referendum requests. In 1999 SOGIN acquired all Italian nuclear power plants to dismantle them and dispose of nuclear waste (after all these years, they are still being dismantled).

Electricity from nuclear sources accounted for approx. 3-4% of Italy’s total production, but after the referendum, it was replaced by a larger use of fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, but also oil/fuel oil, with a consequent increase in imports.

The debate over the possible reintroduction of nuclear power reopened in the mid-2000s, but it stopped again with a new referendum in 2011 whose outcome reflected a still strong fear of nuclear accidents, concerns about radioactive waste disposal, and the certainty of the high costs of nuclear technologies. It should be said, however, that Italy has not much uranium and is a high seismic risk country, where politics, business and organized crime intertwine making the correct and safe management of nuclear energy projects uncertain.