A Day in Fukushima

By Massimo Burbi

This article was originally published in Italian here


Fukushima is not a city, it’s a Japanese prefecture in the Tōhoku region where nearly two million people live. Fukushima city is its administrative capital, but the name is synonymous with disaster because of what happened about 60 km away from it, where Japan borders with the Pacific Ocean to the east.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the Japanese coast, It was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world since 1900.

Magnitude 9.0 might just sound like a number until you have something to compare it to. Italy still remembers the devastation brought by the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila: 309 deaths, 65000 evacuees. That was a magnitude 5.9 (Richter) quake. Logarithmic scale might give the impression the two events were not so different after all, but a difference in magnitude of 3.0 is equivalent to a factor of roughly 30000 in the energy released [1].

And to make matters worse, the earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, with waves in excess of 10 meters that traveled at 700 km/h for up to 10 km inland resulting in 16000 deaths, 6000 injured, 2500 people missing (searches still continue for them, albeit with little hope to cling to), 120000 buildings completely collapsed, entire towns obliterated and 340000 evacuees.

The Fukushima Daiichi (meaning number one) Nuclear Power Plant was built on that coast, it withstood the earthquake and automatically shut down. It was the electricity supply that  failed because of the quake, leaving  the coolant system entirely dependent on the emergency diesel generators.  

A 2008 study (ignored by Tepco, the company running the power plant) warned that a massive tsunami with waves in excess of 10 meters high could occur in that area. In March 2011 the plant’s seawall was just little more than half that height. When a 14 meters high tsunami wave hit the coast it easily overwhelmed the seawall and completely flooded the emergency diesel generators room (culpably located in the basement). This resulted in a total loss of power in the plant, causing the coolant system to become inoperative which started the chain of events leading in the next days to the (chemical, not nuclear) explosions in reactors 1-3 and in the reactor 4’s building, which in turn triggered the release of radioactive material in the atmosphere and into the sea.

The next day more than 150000 people living within 20 km from the nuclear power plant were evacuated [2].


Arrival in Namie Town

It’s 11 o’clock in the morning when we arrive in Namie. It’s been more than eight and half years since the earthquake, but in many ways time seems to have stopped here.

Namie town was among the places most affected by the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is just 8 km away as the crow flies. For six years Namie has been a ghost town, only in the spring of 2017 people were allowed to come back, but only few of them did. “20000 people used to live here, only about 5% returned” explains Fumie, from Fukushima City, who acts as a guide and translator for the day.

The evacuation zone was progressively reduced overtime, right now it extends for 2.7% of the area of the Prefecture and about 30000 people still live as evacuees outside its border [2].

We step down the car near the railway station. Trains only go north from here, but works are in progress to restore the railway to Tomioka Town, some 20 km to the south. A cafe has just opened by the station, a taxi service has recently been resumed, and not far away from where we stand the dentist is back. Tentative signs of reconstruction, both material and human, in a scenario full of uncertainties.

Walking the streets of the town radioactivity is extremely low, rarely exceeding 0.15 µSv/h, less than in many areas of Italy. You can measure 0.30 µSv/h in Rome, and here and there in Orvieto city center readings in the region of 0.70 µSv/h are not uncommon.

What used to be one of Namie Town’s busiest streets, where several buildings have been demolished.

But in spite of radioactivity being low fear is still very much an issue here, and it should not be taken for granted that people who spent years settling elsewhere would be willing to go through another difficult transition to return to their native towns.

No radiation-induced deaths have been recorded in Fukushima so far [3], a study estimated the external dose in the first four months after the accident (when the exposure was at its highest) for nearly half a million residents and reported it was below 3 mSv for 99.4% of them [4]. The Italian per capita average dose is about 4.5 mSv per year [5].

However, about 2000 residents still died in a disorganized evacuation, where people were rushed out of hospitals suffering interruption of medical care and evacuation and relocation stress caused depression, alcoholism and suicides [6].

Fear, anxiety and lack of information on radiation killed more people than the tsunami in the prefecture [7].

Some are of the opinion that evacuation lasted for too long anyway. Shunichi Yamashita (Nagasaki University) who spent two years at the head of Fukushima prefecture’s survey to understand the health effects of the accident on population, claims people could have returned after a month [8].

In Namie the earthquake caused such severe damage that many buildings still standing had to be demolished. Several others will be soon. You can tell them by a small red sticker on the windows.

This red sticker identifies buildings about to be demolished.

We keep on walking until we reach the local school, all but abandoned now. Poignantly from one of the windows we see a shoe rack, with dozens of shoes neatly put in it.

“They belong to the school’s kids” Fumie tells me “they took them off in the morning as they always did, and when the earthquake struck, in the early afternoon, they ran away and left them behind”.

The town was evacuated the very next day. Eight and a half years later and they are still there.

The inside of Namie’s school as seen by the nearby street.

In the streets of the city center we walk by a number of buildings looking reasonably good from a distance, but a closer inspection through the broken windows reveals the desolation and the destruction brought by a monster earthquake followed by years of neglect.

So far we didn’t encounter any pedestrian, only cars. A few hundred meters down the road the picture suddenly changes: gazebos, tables, there’s a small festival going on. Apparently this happens every second Saturday of the month to cheer up those who came back. The entertainment doesn’t look exactly memorable, but people seem to enjoy it. The dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.

The area is surrounded by small temporary stores, about to be moved elsewhere in the town. As soon as we enter one of them we are offered tea and biscuits. All products for sale are local and people don’t miss a chance to tell you that. It’s the same in every store we go.

You can tell that those who came back strongly wants to rebuild their communities. Farmers want to farm and sell their products, but it’s easier said than done. People here have very little trust in the government, which didn’t do a particularly good job in dealing with the emergency and the aftermath. Taking it upon themselves schools, markets and local communities independently started to test for radioactivity in meat, fish, vegetables and all sort of food you can put on the table. Probably nowhere else in the world is food as closely monitored as here, and local people know they are not running radiation-related risks by eating it. Some resident goes as far as saying he wouldn’t buy food from anywhere else, not being as tested as the one from Fukushima.

But even if food meets the standard limit of 100 Bq/kg of Cesium (which is more strict than standards in both the EU and the USA [9]), elsewhere in Japan, as well as in foreign countries, many people are too afraid of contamination to eat food from this region, despite there being no real danger.

Entertainment in Namie Town.

The stigma from the name “Fukushima” is among the biggest obstacles to this battered region’s recovery.

“It happens with people too” Fumie tells me. “Local people who went to live outside the Prefecture are often discriminated against for fear of contamination”. Being exposed to radioactivity doesn’t make you radioactive. Radioactivity is not contagious, but fear, particularly when combined with lack of information, is.

We leave Namie Town heading north west.

In the process of decontaminating the area, 5-10 cm of weakly radioactive superficial soil have been removed and put into plastic bags. But what to do with them is yet to be decided, since nobody takes the responsibility. So for the time being they stay where they are. We see hundreds of them along the road. You wonder what happens to them in the typhoon season.

We take a country road. Immediately after the accident at the Nuclear Power Plant the government ordered to kill cattle in the evacuation zone, but here there’s a man who disregarded the order. We arrive at his ranch at lunch time, he’s waiting for us. He tells us his cows can no longer be sold, therefore they’ll die of old age. “They are fat and happy” he adds.

As he tells us his story it doesn’t take long for his anger against the government and Tepco to become apparent, a state of mind that made him very critical of nuclear power. The debate on the matter ends before it even starts, time is ticking away and we still have many stops ahead of us, we must go.

Leaving the farm the dosimeter and the spectrometer come alive for the first time. At the roadside I measure a dose rate of 0.70-0.80 µSv/h, far from worrying, but enough to take the first significant measurement of the day.

Plastic bags full of weakly radioactive soil at roadside in Namie’s area.

I therefore decide to stop in order to record a gamma spectrum to check that what I am detecting is Cesium released from the Power Plant. Gamma spectroscopy is based on the fact that when a radionuclide undergoes alpha or beta decay, its nucleus is left in an excited state, and can only reach its ground state by emitting a gamma ray.

Every different radionuclide emits gamma-rays of a specific energy which become its signature. Analysing a gamma spectrum allows you not just to tell how much radioactivity there is, but what causes it as well.

The gamma spectrum confirms the presence of Cesium 137 and Cesium 134, the two main radionuclides released in the atmosphere after the accident, together with Iodine 131, the most aggressive of the three in the short term, but long gone by now, its half-life time being just 8 days, and therefore becoming harmless in a month or so.

Cesium 134 halved four times since 2011, and it’s reduced to roughly 6% of its original activity, while Cesium 137, having a 30 years half-life, will take much longer to decay away.


Ukedo and the No-Go Zone

We head towards the ocean and to a place called Ukedo, where formerly about 2000 people lived. The tsunami wiped it all out, killing one in ten people. The few remaining buildings were so damaged, they were torn down soon after. Looking around it’s hard to believe there used to be a small town here.

A desolate landscape. This is where Ukedo used to be.

Nothing remained, the only exception being the elementary school. Its clock hasn’t run since the day of the earthquake, it’s still stuck at the time the tsunami hit the coast. About 80 kids were in the school that day, among so much destruction they were all saved by their teachers who took them to the nearby hills after the tsunami warning was issued. From there they watched the town where they lived being erased from existence, together with the lives of many of their parents.

From here we are about 6 km away from the nuclear power plant and, looking south, we can clearly see it. The dose rate is the lowest so far, below 0.05 µSv/h.

Ukedo school’s clock.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as seen from Ukedo.

We leave the coast and take the National Route n.6, which goes through the No-Go Zone, where you can drive but you are not allowed to stop or even open the window, let alone stepping down.

The dose rate goes up, but keeps pretty low: for a second or two I read 0.50 µSv/h, but it quickly goes down to 0.30 µSv/h and stays there.

We stop at a gas station. We are still well into the No-Go Zone but inside the service area you can get out of the car without anybody complaining about it. I take the chance to record another gamma spectrum. Our stop is longer than it typically takes to fill the tank, I accumulate data for little more than 15 minutes.

Gas station on the National Route n.6, inside the No-Go Zone.
Dose rate in the service area of a gas station inside the No-Go Zone (Futaba’s area).

“How’s the radioactivity here?” Fumie asks me. I tell her we’re slightly above 0.30 µSv/h, lower than what you get in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The signature is still the same: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134.

We go back in the car and we move south on the National Route n.6 in the Futaba area. At our closest approach to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant we are about 2 km away from it. We stop on a side street. The power plant is right in front of us but we can’t get any closer than that and we don’t have much time to look around, after a couple of minutes a policeman tells us, kindly but firmly, that we need to move on. The dose rate is below 0.30 µSv/h.

A view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant from a 2 km distance.

Continuing South, we run into the only real hot spot of the day. I read 3-4 µSv/h, but it’s short-lived, a minute later the dose rate is already reduced by more than a half and it keeps on going down. In order to record a clear spectrum I need more time where radiation is higher (the level is not dangerous) so I ask to turn around and go back north.

You cannot stop the car inside the No-Go Zone, but nothing prevents you from going back and forth. I am not sure the driver understands why we are doing this but he doesn’t complain, we go back towards the power plant.

Our itinerary in the No-Go Zone near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The dosimeter records a datapoint on the GPS map every 30 seconds.

I accumulate data for little less than 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly it’s the smoothest spectrum of the day, but as expected the result doesn’t change: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134. Average dose rate 1.29 µSv/h.

Gamma spectrum recorded in the No-Go Zone, on the National Route n.6, at the closest approach to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.


Tomioka Town, divided city.

With a good spectrum finally under the belt we turn around again and we head to Tomioka Town, about 10 km to the south. The city is cut in two by a road which currently is the boundary of the No-Go Zone and this makes for a pretty surreal view: people can live on one side of the road but can’t even set a food on the opposite side. You look to your left and you see a reasonable normality, but if you look to your right there’s nothing but tall grass and total neglect.

The road dividing the habitable zone from the No-Go zone in Tomioka Town.

“I don’t understand why they left the cars behind” Fumie tells me pointing at the cars permanently parked in front of the abandoned houses. “Now they all have broken windows and flat tyres, but a year ago they still looked perfect”.

We go ahead on foot from here. Right in front of the no trespassing fence the dose rate measured by the instruments is in the region of 0.35 µSv/h. A sign not far from there tells us inside the No-Go Zone it’s 0.48 µSv/h, slightly higher but far from dangerous, and elsewhere in the town it’s much lower than that. Still, fear of radiation is among the main reasons why many people didn’t come back.

Dose rate measured near the limit of the No-Go Zone in Tomioka Town.
The dose rate measured inside the No-Go Zone is displayed by the street.
Beyond the guardrail there’s nothing but tall grass and total neglect.

It’s getting darker as we enter Tomioka’s railway station. “Everything’s being rebuilt from scratch here” explains Fumie, “the tsunami washed out everything away”. Just like in Namie, works are in progress to restore the railway connecting the two towns.

Looking up we see a sign reading “Tomioka will never die!”. We don’t know who put it there. We stare at it for a moment without saying a word. Then I look at my dosimeter, the dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.

The sun has already set and a strong wind is blowing when we reach the coast for the last stop of the day. The other nuclear power plant of Fukushima, the number 2 (Daini), is a km away from where we stand.

The Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant as seen from the coast near Tomioka Town.

We skipped lunch, and Tokyo is more than three hours away. A supermarket just reopened at Tomioka and we decide that having dinner there is the best thing to do.

The supermarket is not exactly crowded, but it works, the shelves are full of products and people have a place in town where they can find what they need. Rebuilding is not just about bricks, it’s about a social and economic fabric that was torn apart.

At the dinner table I take my laptop out and download the GPS map with all the datapoints recorded. We look at it as we finally eat, it’s a way to go through our journey again.

Total accumulated dose during more than seven hours spent in the Fukushima Prefecture, including a couple of stops inside the No-Go Zone: 1.60 µSv. “It means the average dose rate was 0.22 µSv/h, less than what you get walking the streets of Rome’s city center” I say while me and Fumie enjoy a very good sushi.

And now it’s time to go back. 250 km later we are under the Yasukuni Dori’s lights in Tokyo (Shinjuku). In the long journey from Tomioka to Tokyo we talked about many things, but when we finally say goodbye Fumie has one last request: “share what you saw with your friends and family. Your action will support Fukushima people”.

Information is the best antidote to irrational panic and fear.

The accumulated dose in little more than seven hours is 1.60 µSv. The dosimeter shows Italian time, for the Japanese time add 8 hours.
Hourly average dose rate chart of my seven hours stay inside the Fukushima Prefecture. The highest value corresponds to the hour almost entirely spent inside the No-Go Zone and slightly exceeds 0.50 µSv/h.



Five days later I take off from Tokyo to go back to Europe. In little more than 11 hours of flight my dosimeter records an accumulated dose of 44.49 µSv, with a peak dose rate of 10 µSv/h and an average dose rate at cruise altitude between 4 and 5 µSv/h.

This is likely an underestimation [11], the dosimeter is designed for terrestrial gamma rays and the cosmic rays you find at 10-12 km altitude are mostly out of its range, but even believing the numbers I read in the display, as I step down the plane, I cannot help wondering how many of the people who shared that flight with me would have been too afraid of radiation to follow me and Fumie for a day in Fukushima, where they would have been exposed to a dose nearly 30 times lower.

Hourly average dose rate chart of the 11 hour flight from Tokyo Haneda to Munich. The increase in cruise altitude from 11500 to 12200 meters, after roughly 7 hours, results in a higher dose rate.



The instruments measure and record the dose and dose rate for external exposure which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was “by far the dominant pathway contributing to effective dose” in the most affected regions of Fukushima prefecture.

https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44877/9789241503662_eng.pdf;jsessionid=B459B0A64292271AF1134F9AF763CCDA?sequence=1 (pages 41 and 51)

Units mentioned are µSv (microsievert) e mSv (millisievert) which measure the equivalent and effective dose, the biological effect of ionizing radiation. 1 millisievert corresponds to 1000 microsieverts.

The margin of error is in the region of 10-20%.


  • Spetcrometer: Mirion PDS 100G
  • Dosimeter: Tracerco PED+
  • Geiger Counter: SE International Radiation Alert Ranger

The dosimeter can be used in “personal dose” mode and in “survey meter” handheld mode. While accumulating the personal dose it’s been worn on the upper body for most of the time.

References and Suggestions for Further Readings

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/details-of-japan-earthquake/



[2] http://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/site/portal-english/en03-08.html?fbclid=IwAR3dFVamEFNd93lVUo_EaDmfztSBlAqiKsUL5WvgNbxaHfjOOvZ-CVJZ4Fc

[3] https://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/a_e/fukushima/faqs-fukushima/en/

The first, and so far only, deaths that could be radiation-related was recorded in 2018.


[4] https://www.niph.go.jp/journal/data/67-1/201867010003.pdf

[5] http://www.fisicaweb.org/doc/radioattivita/geiger%20muller/taratura.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2GMarmxt093hTPJWUvygCtjiTePRl6OEadUXyhTMUC1LEFsxYWawO713c

[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0936655516000054


[7] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/02/20/national/post-quake-illnesses-kill-more-in-fukushima-than-2011-disaster#.Xe-D3Rt7m02

[8] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2125805-a-nuclear-ghost-town-in-japan-welcomes-back-residents-this-week/

[9] https://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/site/portal-it/it01-03.html

[10] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/05/09/national/fukushima-activist-fights-fear-and-discrimination-based-on-radiation/#.XezovBt7lNA

[11] http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/annexb.pdf

Nuclear Days 2019: some pictures about a successful two-day event


On November 15th, a group of 26 people visited the Slovenian Nuclear Power Plant, located in Krško, about 100 km from Ljubljana. People had the opportunity to visit the non-radiologically controlled areas of the plant, such as generators and transformers, turbine hall and secondary circuit, control room and tertiary cooling circuit. It was also possible to have a first hand experience of the control room simulator, in which crews that operate power plants are trained.
In the afternoon,
people visited the World of Energy Exhibition. In addition to a model of the nuclear power plant with digital information panels, the exhibition shows several installations on the various forms of energy production, on radioactivity and nuclear fuel cycle, interactive activities to simulate the electricity Slovenian daily load curve with different energy mixes, and experiments on electricity and magnetism.



On November 16th the conference “Nuclear for Climate: opportunities and challenges took place at Istituto Tecnico Statale “Alessandro Volta”, in Trieste. The conference was structured in a morning and an afternoon session, with speakers from Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Poland and France, and the special participation of Michael Shellenberger in video-conference from California. The morning session focused on current state and future perspectives of nuclear technology, while the afternoon session focused on public acceptance and policy.

Parallel to the afternoon session took place the “Nuclear Science and Technology exhibition”, with informative desks and interactive experiments about radiation physics and energy production.

A special thanks to our partners and sponsors and to all the participants, we look forward to see you again in 2020!



Locandina Nuclear Days poster


Il 15 e 16 novembre 2019 si svolgerà un’importante iniziativa promossa dal Comitato Nucleare e Ragione, in collaborazione con l’Associazione Italiana Nucleare, la Nuclear Society of Slovenia, l’Austrian Nuclear Society e diverse altre organizzazioni.

Il programma dell’evento, che prevede l’intervento di numerosi relatori internazionali, è quasi completato, ma abbiamo bisogno dell’aiuto dei nostri lettori e simpatizzanti per sostenere economicamente l’iniziativa!

Abbiamo bisogno di te e ogni piccolo contributo può essere utile!


Ecco come puoi darci una mano:

1) Iscriviti al Comitato Nucleare e Ragione! Entra a far parte di  un gruppo di persone motivate, che condividono la tua stessa passione. Con la tua quota di iscrizione potrai contribuire a finanziare questo evento – su cui avrai anche accesso prioritario per la registrazione – e tutte le altre iniziative di divulgazione scientifica a livello nazionale e internazionale che abbiamo in programma.

2) Fai una donazione! Puoi donare attraverso un bonifico bancario oppure con carta di credito/paypal. Qui i dettagli: https://nucleareeragione.org/contribuisci-anche-tu/

Il Nuclear Day 2018 è stato un successo. Aiutaci a rendere i Nuclear Days 2019 un trionfo!

Campagna tesseramenti 2019

I Vantaggi del socio:

  • Far parte di  un gruppo di persone dinamiche che condividono la tua stessa passione
  • Sostenere e/o contribuire  ad attività di divulgazione e di promozione del nucleare  a livello nazionale e internazionale
  • Iscrizione prioritaria a tutti  i nostri eventi: visite guidate a centrali nucleari e centri di ricerca, workshops, conferenze, ecc.
  • Sostegno, consulenza e materiali per la promozione di iniziative a tema  presso la tua associazione, scuola o altro
  • Incontri di formazione esclusivi
  • Prezzi scontati nella nostra bottega

Quote sociali in vigore per l’anno 2019

Ordinario: 30 €; sostenitore: 50 €; junior (under 26): 15 €


Info: https://nucleareeragione.org/statuto/
Puoi scaricare il modulo_associativo e inviarlo compilato a nucleareeragione@gmail.com



Il prof. Ricci socio onorario del CNeR

[Fisico di fama internazionale, alfiere del nucleare in Italia, da sempre in prima linea per la libertà e la dignità della scienza]


Il Consiglio Direttivo del Comitato Nucleare e Ragione ha conferito la qualifica di Socio Onorario al Prof. Renato Angelo Ricci, da tempo membro del nostro sodalizio e già Presidente Onorario della Società Italiana di Fisica, dell’Associazione Italiana Nucleare e Presidente dell’Associazione Galileo 2001 per la dignità e la libertà della scienza.

Il professor Ricci vanta oltre 300 pubblicazioni nel campo della fisica nucleare fondamentale ed un’instancabile attività divulgativa nel campo scientifico, con particolare riferimento all’uso civile della tecnologia nucleare. E’ socio del Comitato Nucleare e Ragione dal maggio 2013, a seguito dei contatti avuti durante la battaglia politica sostenuta per la convocazione di una Conferenza Nazionale sull’Energia [1], di cui fu convinto sostenitore. Malgrado i suoi numerosissimi impegni, ha sempre seguito con attiva partecipazione la vita sociale del Comitato, contribuendo anche con propri scritti al nostro blog [2].

Il conferimento della qualifica di Socio Onorario – reso possibile da una recente modifica statutaria – è il segno della nostra sentita riconoscenza per l’attività da lui svolta.

Il professor Ricci ha ringraziato in una nota scritta il presidente Totaro per il riconoscimento, augurandosi di poter ancora contribuire al raggiungimento dei nostri comuni obiettivi.

Chi volesse conoscere meglio la figura del prof. Ricci può leggere la sua intervista

rilasciata alla rivista 21esimo Secolo in occasione del suo novantesimo compleanno.



[1]          https://conferenzaenergia.wordpress.com

[2]          https://nucleareeragione.org/2015/04/10/giorgio-salvini-la-civilta-della-scienza/

A dead end pathway to decarbonization

[New released EU long-term strategy fails to understand pivotal role of nuclear power]

Several eyes-opening events happened worldwide recently: a new IPCC report that grudgingly admitted that in order to limit global temperature warming to 1.5°C nuclear power must play an increasingly important role; the first ever mass public event in favor of nuclear power, the Nuclear Pride Fest held in Munich on October 21st [1]; clear political signals sent by Netherland and Poland and, on top, from the pro-nuclear referendum outcome in Taiwan.

After all that we would have expected the European institutions to show more acumen.

And yet, the new long-term strategy to reduce carbon emissions, presented to the press on November 28th and depicting 8 different scenarios to a deep decarbonization (ranging from 80% to 100% emission reduction), does not shows any novelty and relegate nuclear power to an ancillary role of renewables and natural gas.

If the flattening words with which nuclear power is depicted through the main document – zero-carbon power source and a backbone of EU power generation – may have boosted the self esteem of the European nuclear industry, the reality of the numbers envisioned for the European energy mix at 2050 surely fall short to anybody that take climate change threat and the decarbonization challenge seriously.

Substantially, the plan just reaffirms the roadmap that has been already traced by previous energy policies, raising the level of projected emissions reduction through the combination of electrification, efficiency and… more renewables, with a side of ancillary assumptions about storage and hydrogen production, carbon sequestration, waste recycling and diet changes that are way to unaccountable to be even commented.

What – sadly – all scenarios have in common is the overall reduction of nuclear power capacity to values that range between 99 and 121 GW (it was 122 GW in 2015). This is at odds with the estimates made by the same ICTP report, that sees a global increase in nuclear capacity in its 1.5°C scenarios, the same scenarios the EU pathway claim to acknowledge as a wake-up call [2], and at odds with all the nice words spent on nuclear power through the document.

Fig. 1       Power generation capacity by source as projected at 2050 through 8 different scenarios. The share of nuclear power is substantially the same in all scenarios, comparable or even lower than fossil fuels share.

Overall, all the scenarios “spectacularly” (this the term used many times through the document, proof of its technological neutrality) increase the share of wind and solar, even reducing to a marginal share hydroelectric and biomasses that today constitute the backbone of EU renewable generation and the sole sources that offer some degree of reliability against the intermittency of solar and wind. Even futuristic technologies, like biomass and fossil production with carbon capture (BECCS and Fossil Fuel CCS in fig. 1) find an appreciable role in some of the scenarios. How should not only coal, but also natural gas go out of the scene with massive wind and solar production while facts have – up today – proven the contrary, is most likely encrypted in the fairy-tale ancillary assumptions mentioned before. First and foremost, a more than spectacular (now the adjective is ours, nda) increase in storage capacity: basically infinite growth for batteries and hydrogen storage with respect to present (fig.2).

Cherry on the top of your cake, as a result of massive electrification most of the scenarios predict a twofold or threefold increase in energy generation capacity.

Fig. 2       Electricity storage and new fuel production capacities at 2050.

In conclusion, the eight scenarios presented by the European Commission as a pathway to deep decarbonization are basically the same scenario that led Germany’s Energiewende [3] to increased electricity costs and stagnant emission that will most likely cause the country to fail the decarbonization target set for 2020. A scenario built, as most of EU energy policies to indiscriminately push the growth of solar and wind power regardless of any other – possibly more effective and more cost effective – option on the table [4]. This scenario is the nightmare in which nuclear European advocates like us woke up today, after dreaming of a nuclear renaissance based on recent global trends. But we do not give up, and we are more determined than ever to bring to the public attention the pivotal role of nuclear power in a transition to clean energy future. The graph below (fig. 3) shows that indeed it is a hard task that we must undertake, for the sake of Europe and of the Planet.

Fig. 3       Stakeholders consultation results about the role of different technologies in the Clean Energy Transition (1=not important; 5=important).


[1]          See our article: Il nucleare in Europa potrebbe ripartire da Monaco (in Italian) or the page https://nuclearpridefest.org

[2]          Quote from the EU Commission press release: “In October, the IPCC special report on 1.5°C made it clear that emissions need to be reduced with far more urgency than previously anticipated and that limiting climate change to 1.5°C is necessary to reduce the likelihood of extreme weather events. This has been a wake-up call.” The full press release available here (last accessed November 29th, 2018).

[3]          Our articles about Energiewende (in Italian):

07/11/2016         La lignite del vicino è sempre più verde

20/12/2016         La vittoria di Pirro delle rinnovabili tedesche

23/02/2017         Energiewende dove vai?

11/01/2018         Sacrificati sull’altare del carbone

[4].       For what concerns Italy, we analyzed in a recent scientific paper the potential contribution of the nuclear source to deep decarbonization of the electric sector as opposed to the sole use of wind and solar, also in terms of reliability and land-use: Errani, P., Totaro, P., & Brandmayr, E. Nuclear Power In Italy: Lost And Potential Role In Decarbonizing The Electric System.




Il vicolo cieco della decarbonizzazione

[L’ultimissima strategia europea a lungo termine continua a sottovalutare il ruolo dell’energia nucleare]

 Di recente abbiamo assistito a numerosi eventi illuminanti: un nuovo rapporto IPCC  che ob torto collo ammette il ruolo essenziale dell’energia nucleare nella mitigazione del cambiamento climatico; la prima manifestazione nella storia a favore dell’energia nucleare, il Nuclear Pride Fest tenutosi a Monaco lo scorso 21 ottobre [1]; i chiari segnali politici inviati da Paesi Bassi e Polonia e, soprattutto, dal risultato pro nucleare del referendum a Taiwan.

Dopo tutto ciò era lecito aspettarsi maggior acume da parte delle istituzioni europee.

Invece, la nuova strategia di lungo termine per la riduzione delle emissioni, presentata il 28 novembre alla stampa e che traccia 8 possibili scenari verso una incisiva decarbonizzazione (tra l’80% e il 100% di riduzione delle emissioni), non contiene alcuna novità, continuando a relegare il nucleare ad ancella di rinnovabili e gas naturale.

Se alcuni apprezzamenti verbali profusi nel documento verso la fonte nucleare – descritta come energia a zero emissioni e spina dorsale della produzione attuale – hanno fatto gongolare i rappresentanti dell’industria nucleare europea, la realtà numerica del mix energetico auspicato per il 2050 appare di certo inadeguata a chiunque abbia seriamente a cuore le sfide della decarbonizzazione e della mitigazione del cambiamento climatico.

Sostanzialmente il piano si muove nel solco tracciato dalla precedente politica energetica, rilanciando nuovi e più ambiziosi traguardi di riduzione delle emissioni tramite il consueto mix di maggiore elettrificazione, efficienza e… rinnovabili, con un contorno di assunti riguardo stoccaggio e produzione di idrogeno, riciclo dei rifiuti e modifica del regime alimentare talmente speculativi da non potersi commentare.

Il triste punto comune di tutti gli scenari è la riduzione della capacità nucleare installata a valori compresi tra 99 e 121 GW (erano 122 GW nel 2015). Una previsione (o auspicio?) a smentita delle belle parole profuse nel documento a favore del nucleare e certamente in controtendenza rispetto agli scenari del recente rapporto IPCC – al quale la nuova strategia enfaticamente si richiama[2] – che vedono un aumento marcato a scala globale della capacità nucleare.

Fig. 1       Capacità elettrica installata per fonte al 2050 negli 8 scenari considerati. La quota di nucleare è sostanzialmente uguale in tutti gli scenari, comparabile o persino inferiore a quella dei combustibili fossili.

Nel complesso, tutti gli scenari prevedono uno “spettacolare” (questo il termine più volte usato nel documento, a riprova della neutralità tecnologica dell’approccio) aumento di solare ed eolico, tanto da ridurre a marginale il contributo di biomasse e idroelettrico, oggi spina dorsale della produzione rinnovabile europea e sole fonti rinnovabili con un certo grado di affidabilità contro l’intermittenza di sole e vento. Persino tecnologie futuribili, quali biomasse e combustibili fossili con meccanismi di cattura delle emissioni (BECCS e Fossil Fuel CCS in fig. 1) ricoprono un ruolo apprezzabile negli scenari. Come possa tale incremento di solare ed eolico far uscire di scena non solo il carbone ma anche il gas naturale – ad oggi la crescita di queste rinnovabili è andata di pari passo con la crescita del gas naturale – è un mistero racchiuso molto probabilmente nei fantasiosi assunti al contorno menzionati sopra. Primo fra tutti, un fantasmagorico incremento (ora l’aggettivo è nostro, nda) nelle capacità di stoccaggio: una crescita sostanzialmente infinita, rispetto al presente, di produzione di idrogeno e capacità di stoccaggio tramite batterie (fig.2).

Ciliegina sulla torta, gran parte degli scenari prevedono al 2050 una generazione elettrica duplicata o triplicata rispetto ad oggi, come effetto della maggiore elettrificazione.

Fig. 2       Capacità di stoccaggio elettrico e nuovi combustibili al 2050.

In conclusione, gli otto scenari, presentati dalla Commissione Europea come nuovo percorso verso la decarbonizzazione, altro non sono che lo stesso scenario che ha portato la Energiewende tedesca[3] a maggiori costi in bolletta e emissioni stagnanti, dato quest’ultimo che probabilmente causerà il fallimento degli obiettivi di riduzione delle emissioni sottoscritti dalla Germania per il 2020. Uno scenario costruito – come tutta la politica energetica europea – per sostenere indiscriminatamente solare ed eolico a discapito di ogni opzione alternativa, fosse anche più efficiente e meno costosa[4].

Dopo gli eventi che avevano fatto sognare un rinascimento nucleare a scala globale, questo è lo scenario da incubo in cui i promotori della fonte nucleare in Europa si sono risvegliati oggi. Noi però non desistiamo e siamo più determinati che mai nel portare a conoscenza dell’opinione pubblica il ruolo fondamentale del nucleare nella transizione ad energia pulita. Il grafico in basso (fig. 3) certo dimostra che si tratta di un compito arduo, da intraprendere per il bene dell’Europa e del pianeta tutto.

Fig. 3       Risultati di una consultazione pubblica in merito al ruolo delle diverse tecnologie nella transizione verso l’energia pulita (1=non importante; 5=importante).


[1]          Si veda: Il nucleare in Europa potrebbe ripartire da Monaco o la pagina https://nuclearpridefest.org

[2]          Citiamo dal comunicato stampa: “In October, the IPCC special report on 1.5°C made it clear that emissions need to be reduced with far more urgency than previously anticipated and that limiting climate change to 1.5°C is necessary to reduce the likelihood of extreme weather events. This has been a wake-up call.” L’intero comunicato è accessibile qui (ultimo accesso 29 novembre 2018).

[3]          I nostri articoli sulla Energiewende:

07/11/2016         La lignite del vicino è sempre più verde

20/12/2016         La vittoria di Pirro delle rinnovabili tedesche

23/02/2017         Energiewende dove vai?

11/01/2018         Sacrificati sull’altare del carbone

[4].       Abbiamo analizzato in un recente lavoro scientifico le potenzialità della fonte nucleare in Italia per il raggiungimento di una decarbonizzazione profonda, confrontando alcuni impatti economici e ambientali qualora lo stesso obiettivo fosse perseguito soltanto con solare ed eolico: Errani, P., Totaro, P., & Brandmayr, E. Nuclear Power In Italy: Lost And Potential Role In Decarbonizing The Electric System.