Il “go-and-stop” dei programmi nucleari civili italiani, tra improvvisazioni, ambizioni e cospirazioni

di Angelo Baracca*, Giorgio Ferrari+, Matteo Gerlini#, Roberto Renzetti$

* Department of Physics, University of Florence

+ Former ENEL specialist

# Department of Studies on State, University of Florence

$ Physicist

1. Introduction. The framework

This is only a short and preliminary account of an extremely complex process – as have probably been nuclear program in every country – but with specific features of the Italian situation, the interplay of, and conflicts between several economic and political, internal and international interests. We will consequently avoid several details, which however on many cases are important in order to really understand the development, and successive phases of the development.

A complete and reliable history of these programs does not exist, apart from reconstructions of partial aspects of phases, and a number of books which reflect more partisan or polemic positions than objective arguments. In fact, the debate on nuclear programs has always been extremely harsh in Italy.

One of the main aspects that must be remarked from the beginning is the deep contradiction suffered by nuclear programs (but not only these) in Italy for the contrasting and fighting interests and appetites of the (short-sighted) private industry and the State industry, or better the “general public interest”. This contradiction caused innumerable wrong choices, delays and wastes. The tortuous and contradictory behaviour of the Italian nuclear programs must be read between the obstinate opposition of the powerful private electrical industry against nationalization of the sector, and the ambiguous and short-sighted related political manoeuvres. On the other hand, in the immediate post-war (when the US maintained an absolute nuclear monopoly) Italy was excluded by this technology until when it joined NATO.

The development of the Italian nuclear programs must be divided into distinct phases. At the very beginning of the “civil” nuclear era, just after the launching of the “Atoms for Peace” program (1953), Italy had a rapid development of nuclear programs, with the construction since the end of the Fifties of three nuclear power plants, ordered from American and British nuclear power companies, entered into operation as early as 1964-65, which put Italy among the top nuclear countries in the world. Actually such a sudden start did not reflect any coherent program, although some Italian manager had very ambitious projects: even an original Italian project for a natural uranium, heavy water “fog” reactor, called “Cirene”, which in fact was finished in 1989 (!), but was far from representing that bright result of the “Italian genius”, and turned instead into (one of) the big wastes of money.

In any case, these ambitions suffered a drastic stop precisely in 1963-64, when the General Secretary of CNEN (Italian Commission for Nuclear Energy), Felice Ippolito, was charged and condemned for economic irregularities: behind this trial – whose relevance in any case could not have been directly connected with the nature of nuclear programs – there were deep fights between different national interests, but probably also some international conspiracy, driven by the United States through Italian servile political forces. In fact, in those years not only the nuclear ambitions, but the whole perspectives of technological excellence of the country in the international context were frustrated.

As a matter of fact, the ambitious Italian nuclear programs stopped: only in 1971 the construction began of the bigger nuclear plant, an 850 MW BWR reactor at Caorso, which had to wait 1981 to formally enter into operation, and remained the last nuclear plant constructed in Italy.

During the Seventies and the Eighties a sequence of National Energy Programs were proposed by the different Governments, providing new ambitious, but contradictory, programs for the construction of large numbers of nuclear plants, while strong popular oppositions and protests were growing in the country against these programs. Even a 30 % participation from the State Owned Power Company (ENEL, Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica) in the French fast breeding reactors program started, with the national project of building a pilot reactor for testing the fuel bars (PEC, Prova Elementi di Combustibile), which remained unfinished not only when the Italian nuclear programs were definitely stopped, but would have been in strong delay even for the progress of the French program.

While a fourth big nuclear power plant was under construction among these protests, a popular referendum was launched, intended to definitely stop the Italian nuclear programs. The impression of the 1986 Chernobyl  contributed to the result of the referendum in 1987.

2. The post war economic and industrial situation. Big interests and energy choices

Although Italy came out of the war with deep destructions, the damages to industrial estate were relatively limited and – mainly in the industrialized North, and in part thanks to partisans and workers, who occupied the factories – a park of recently built plants remained, although with an around 50 % level of utilization [Castronovo, 1980; Pinzani, 1975]. The fall of the German competition, and cheap labour opened big perspectives for Italian industry.

The electric and steel industries had acquired a strong power under the fascist regime and in war time: they were in the best position to exploit the difficult situation left in the country by the war, and strongly opposed any policy of economic planning, having their main political support in the Christian Democratic and the Liberal Parties. Innovation substantially consisted in mature technologies, and the strong economic development of the years 1950-63 was mainly based on low cost of labour, and labour-intensive production in the car industry, mainly FIAT; with the relevant exception of the developments in electronic computers in Olivetti, which reached a world leading position during the Fifties. Production of electricity was almost entirely of hydroelectric origin, and entirely in the hands of private industries. It seems worth noticing the interweaving of interests and power with no equal between fascism and electrical companies. One of the main exponents of the latter, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata – shareholder and manager of SADE (Società Adriatica di Elettricità) – was appointed as Finance Minister in 1925, and President of Confindustria (General  Confederation of Italian Industry) from 1934 to 1943. Such a concentration of power grew further in post-war period (in 1941, 8 firms out of the existing 320 controlled 77 % of electrical production; in 1960, 5 firms out of 600 controlled 81 % of production). The left immediately posed the problem of eliminating this power bloc, and as early as 1946-1947 repeatedly proposed the nationalization of the sector, always rejected by the Christian Democratic party, under the pressure of the electrical monopolies. When this clash went to an end in 1948 (defeat of the left), The Industry Minister, Ivan Matteo Lombardo (Social Democratic Party, of the current of Saragat, whose heavy role in connection with the American interests we will meet again later on), authorized the escalation of electrical charges up to 2.300 %, plus a series of other concessions. In spite of this, Article 43 of the Italian Constitution (which later on allowed nationalization in 1962) was perceived by electrical monopolies as a constant threat. Therefore every initiative in the nuclear field – from the nuclear law up to the study of reactors – was seen with suspicion: even the construction of nuclear plants was opposed by electrical monopolies, at least until they realized (around mid Fifties) that public companies (CNRN, ENI) were set on building them. Then they rushed too, with the attempt of biasing the by then urgent nuclear law. Specific references: Di Pasquantonio, 1962; Speroni, 1975.

A very relevant event was the foundation in 1953 of a State owned Oil Company, ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi), having the monopoly for the exploitation of national resources, thanks to the mediatic campaign financed by Enrico Mattei in order to enhance the discovery of natural gas and oil fields in Italy. Anyway Mattei was an innovative and resourceful, though fairly unscrupulous, manager, who opposed the private industry, and developed also a direct, deeply innovative policy with the oil producing countries (“fifty-fifty” contracts), contrasting the oligopolistic policy of the “Seven Sisters” which dominated the world oil market.

One must recall however that Italy – unique among the capitalistic countries – had inherited from fascism also an important economic State sector, IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale), founded in 1933 in order to sustain industries and banks in front of economic difficulties.

3. The early developments concerning nuclear energy in Italy, 1946-1955

In this context matured the early interests and choices concerning nuclear energy. They were precocious, but had a substantially extemporaneous, non systematic feature, and suffered of the conflicts between the private and State sectors of industry.

It must be recalled that Italian science had emerged almost destroyed from the brain drain after the fascist “Racial Laws” and war destructions. Nevertheless, some good school of Physics remained (a fundamental experiment on mesons had been performed in Rome by Conversi, Pancini and Piccioni between 1941 and 1946), and Edoardo Amaldi developed a fundamental work for reconstructing Italian Physics in collaboration with the U.S. and the international community.

As early as 1946 a group of young physicists (Bolla, Salvetti, Salvini, and.eng. M. Silvestri; with collaboration of E. Amaldi, G. Bernardini, B. Ferretti) led a group of private industries (the electrical utilities Edison and SADE, then Fiat, Montecatini, and others) to establish in Milan the Center CISE (Centro Informazioni Studi Esperienze), with the aim of developing applied nuclear research and designing an Italian power reactor.

The access of Italy to NATO in 1949 opened the way to the collaboration with the United States in this field. Actually, this opening was not made effective until the bilateral agreement, signed in spring 1955, and entered into force in July 1956 [Paoloni, 1992; Nuti, 2007].

In spite of the indifference of the Italian political community towards nuclear energy, in 1952 a State committee was established within the National Research Council (CNR), the CNRN (Comitato Nazionale per le Ricerche Nucleari), with the aim of promoting research, collaborations and applications of nuclear energy: however the Committee was created without a specific law, it had no juridical state, and could not administrate money! In any case one must remark the existence of two opposite and conflicting views of the role of State in research: the private industry strongly opposed a nuclear law, which arrived only in 1962. Actually, in 1952 CISE (who had initially opposed the birth of CNRN) proposed to CNRN’s President, Giordani, the project for the construction of an Italian 1.000 kW natural uranium, heavy-water reactor [Ippolito, Simen, 1974], but it was not taken into consideration. Only later Giordani advanced the requirement for a higher power reactor, and CISE began the work for the already mentioned project Cirene (CISE.reattore.a nebbia). Moreover, Giordani initially opposed CISE’s requirement for financing that it was a private institution, and when this aspect was resolved the funds were in any case insufficient.

In march 1955, in the context of the Atoms for Peace campaign, the CNRN sent a commission in the US, which contracted the purchase of a 1.000 kW, CP-5 research reactor fuelled with 20 % enriched uranium, among contradictions with the President of the private electrical utility, Edison. Actually, the commission had among his aims the purchase of a first delivery of heavy water, and the study for the supply of a power nuclear plant [Paoloni, 1992: ENEA Archives, pos. 21.A, excerpts of CNRN minutes]: these two aspects, being finalized to the achievement of power reactors, explain the irritation of Edison, worried that the public sector could develop on its’ own the production of electronuclear energy, strengthening the process of nationalization. As a reaction, Edison went in the US in October 1955, with the aim of discussing the purchase of a nuclear reactor already under construction: the mission was supplemented by Giorgio Valerio, General Manager of Edison, Franco Castelli and Mario Silvestri, from CISE [Silvestri, 1968].

At the 1955 Geneva Conference, Italy presented 6 communications (4 from CISE), while the representatives of the private industry declared contradictory or inconsistent projects.

A contradiction should be remarked also at an European level, since in 1956 a commission of three personalities – Louis Armand, Franz Atzel and Franceso Giordani, President of CNRN – wished a gigantic program of installing for 1967 a nuclear power covering ¼ of the electrical capacity of the six States, purchasing reactors from the US, while CEE in 1957 established the Euratom with the opposite aim of developing an autonomous and competitive nuclear capacity.

4. Debates, tricks, contradictions, 1956-57

In the subsequent years nuclear energy entered into the Italian political debate, and raised growing interests in the energy industry. These developments were biased by the usual clash between private and public interests and programs.

The events concerning CNRN had a big relevance for their later consequences during the Sixties (Section 8). In 1956 its President, Giordani, resigned, and the Secretary, Felice Ippolito, assumed the charge of General Secretary: it was an interregnum phase, in which the Premier, Segni, would have desired to dissolve the CNRN, while Ippolito succeeded in reinforcing and boosting the Committee. The new President, Focaccia, completely unread in nuclear energy, left Ippolito free of governing the Committee and pursuing his own views.

While the Euratom and the IAEA were established, in 1957, the debate on nuclear power grew also in Italy. We have already mentioned the 1955-56 bi-lateral agreement with the United States, which opened for Italy the access to nuclear technology: although its take-off was slowed by the lack of a nuclear law in Italy, hindered by the private industries, opposed towards any national planning, and specifically the nationalization of the electrical sector. The contradiction was striking (though not very different from the interplay of private and State economic interests in the present world financial crisis!). On the one hand, private industries opposed State regulation and intervention, meeting however obstacles even in their bargaining with the United States; but, on the other hand, they searched for support from the national Committee and guarantees for their investments (one could probably remark that private industry had been accustomed to the sycophancy of the fascist State). A typical example (this too reappearing today in the form of the guarantees on loans claimed by the American banks) was the request in 1956-57 by Edison to the Government for a guarantee on exchange rate, in order to protect the loan for future changes in money rates [Ippolito, Simen, 1974]. Actually, in winter 1957-58 the loan had been formalized with the Export-Import Bank for $ 34 millions: however Ippolito pressed the Ministry of Industry against the lending, which in fact was denied, causing a delay in the construction of the Edison nuclear plant, which was preceded by those built by the State groups IRI and ENI (next section).

In this period the previously cited CP-5 reactor was definitely purchased by CNRN: it was very expensive ($ 3 millions) and entered into function in 1959, with a power of 5.000 kW and the name Ispra-1, at the newly established centre in Ispra, showing immediately heavy design problems [Renzetti, 2008].

5. The three nuclear plants, 1957-1964

Among these deep contradictions, and without any general strategy, between 1956 and 1958 the contracts were signed for the purchase of three power nuclear plants: they were in fact three completely different reactors, but they led Italy in 1964 to the top levels of electronuclear production in the world (the third one, following U.S. and U.K.).Around 1957 there were not yet civil nuclear plants working in the world (apart from Calder Hall in the UK), and the choice between different models was objectively very complex: it is enough to recall that the choice of an enriched uranium reactor would have determined a strict dependence from the US for the fuel. Actually, such an apparent world excellence owes some comment: in fact, the construction of the poser plants (in particular the one at Trino Vercellese: Edison was the first one to start) was the last attempt by the private sector to prevent that the advent of nuclear power, if left in public hands, paved the way to nationalization. Without this fear, private industry would not have invested any money in nuclear energy.

In 1957 an action of World Bank, BIRS, together with the Banca d’Italia led to the establishment of the project ENSI (Energia Nucleare Sud Italia), which led to the purchase of an American reactor (with the World Bank it would not have been possible a different choice). The final choice (tutored by American, French, and British experts) was a 150 MW, BWR light water reactor from General Electric, which was constructed, with funds from the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, through the public industry SENN (Società Elettronucleare Nazionale, pertaining to IRI-Finmeccanica) at Garigliano, South Italy.In order to develop nuclear energy in the South of Italy, the World Bank gave a financial support of $ 40 millions. The plant entered into function in January 1964 [rigano, 2002]: it will be definitely closed for an accident in 1978.

In the meantime, the already mentioned 1955 visit in the US of the General Manager of Edison, Giorgio Valerio, resulted in the purchase of a power reactor. The contract – initially delayed, and subsequently guaranteed by the American Export-Import Bank – was signed only in 1957 with Westinghouse, for a 242 MW reactor. It was the first Italian power reactor which entered into function, on October 1964. at Trino Vercellese, near Turin, Northern Italy, with a final cost of $ 41 millions (in front of the $ 34 million loan).

The third project merits a specific attention. It was realized by ENI, whose President, Enrico Mattei, had created in 1956 a specific section (AGIP-Nucleare). Mattei’s choice is important since, on the same line of getting autonomous from the United States, he chose a British “Magnox” reactor, fuelled with natural uranium and gas cooled. The plant was built in Southern Italy (it was a natural choice for a State industry), near Latina, its total cost was around $ 60 millions, and in fact it was the first one to enter into function, in May 1963.

One must remark that these projects were designed and realized in the total absence of a national legislation – localization, licence, control, protection, management of the cue of the nuclear cycle – strongly opposed, as we have observed, by the private industry.

The costs of these projects, and of the produced electric power, seems far from clear, and caused the harsh and decisive polemics (Section 8). A “partisan” diagnosis, from a CISE representative, says that: «According to official estimates [ENEL, see Section 7] the cost of the electric energy produced … was Lire 7,80 (Latina), Lire 7,20 (Garigliano), Lire 5,40 (Turin), compared with a cost of traditional energy lower than 5 Lire. This means that the annual burden for Italy is around 7 – 8 billion Lire» [Silvestri, 1968, p. 199]

The indeterminacy of the Italian policy in nuclear matters emerged also with the gift in 1959 of the Ispra research centre, and the reactor CP-5, to Euratom. It was probably a far-sighted choice of Ippolito.

Finally: what role, if any, was played by the militaries? One should recall that 1957 was a crucial year for a secrete initiative of France, Germany and Italy with the ambitious aim of developing European nuclear armaments [Nuti, 2007, Chapter 4], which decayed when De Gaulle decided to develop a French “Force de Frappe”. The skills of the Italian militaries raises several doubts, since their doubly slobbish test in 1952, in which they pretended to ignite a thermonuclear explosion with a conventional explosive [Nuti, 2007, Chapter 3; Renzetti 1979]: the first US thermonuclear explosion was 7 years away; But, were the test successful, the place, Nettuno, is very near to Rome! In any case, the Italian Army built the nuclear reactor “Galilei”, in the centre for military studies CAMEN (named later CISAM), near Pisa, which functioned until the Seventies: very little is known (the militaries would probably design a nuclear vessel), although sometimes not very reassuring news have filtered.

6. 1960, the ambiguous transformation of CNRN into CNEN and the proliferation of nuclear centres and projects

The opposition toward an organic Nuclear Law led in 1960 to a preliminary act which regulated only some aspects of this matter. The European (Euratom) and international (IAEA) developments after 1957, after the 1959 Ippolito’s gift of Ispra to Euratom, reinforced the commitment for a national organization and regulation, in spite of the strenuous resistance of the private electrical industry. This Act was substantially limited to the attribution of a juridical status to CNRN, changing its name into CNEN (Comitato Nazionale per l’Energia Nucleare) and attributing it new tasks and responsibilities, financed with 80 billion Lire for the first five-years plan. CNEN had the responsibility for the control and technical surveillance over all the nuclear plants, both in the construction and management, and of the implementation of tests.

Obviously CISE expressed a very negative opinion on this Act, since CNEN subtracted it every space. The more so, since Ippolito was appointed Secretary General of CNEN, while its President was formally the Ministry of Industry, not a dedicated person (this had deep consequences, Sect. 8).

As a matter of fact, the new tasks of CNEN multiplied the ambitious nuclear programs and centres: Italy, although still lacking an organic organization, apparently acted as one of the most ambitious protagonists in this field! The extremely ambitious project was the (first, and unique) attempt to reach a complete autonomy for the Italian nuclear industry, from fuel fabrication and reprocessing, to the construction of reactors. This ambition (or madness?) required the study of almost all the possibilities. (These centres and programs, moreover, would leave a heavy inheritance when the whole Italian nuclear program went to e stop!). The five-years plan provided in fact for the design and test of much as four types of reactors: boiling water, and cooled respectively with organic substances (PRO, Progetto Reattore Organico, cooled with a mixture of diphenyles and triphenyls), a liquid metal, and a gas at high temperature. One could remark that some of these projects are not yet satisfactorily working today in the most advanced nuclear countries! In the field of fuels, the uranium-thorium cycle had to be developed, in collaboration with the American Atomic Energy Commission, designing, building, and running both a chemical separation plant, and a pilot, integral cycle plant: two centres were built, at Trisaia in the South, and near the Lake Brasimone, on the Tuscan-Emilian Appennini. In addition, the centre of Casaccia had been established, near Rome, with some research reactors. The Trisaia plant (ITREC) stood for many years as the only one in the world designed to recuperate U-233 from Thorium: in those times it was an original design, but after the stop of the Italian nuclear programs (Section 8) it was used as a “nuclear rubbish bin”, when 84 fuel elements from the Elk River American nuclear plant were purchased in 1967, while the U-Th cycle was abandoned, with the exception of India (64 fuel elements are still in the site, with no more possibility of reprocessing).

These programs involved collaborations with several industrial sectors, and in some way contributed to divide the industrial front opposed to the Nuclear Law.

7. 1962, the Nuclear law, and the nationalization of the electric industry (ENEL)

An aspect is fundamental in order to understand the events of the Sixties, and the destiny of the unfortunate, although chaotic, Italian nuclear programs: the definition of a Nuclear Law became strictly intertwined with the harshly debated problem of the nationalization of the electric industry, even more opposed by the private electric industry.

We cannot discuss here the nationalization of the Italian electric industry, with the creation of ENEL (Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica), a decision that was requested by the Socialist Party for the formation of the centre-left government, in any case an epochal step in Italian history. The electric utilities were indemnified with pharaonic amounts. The underlying idea was that the industries would use such huge amounts to develop other sectors, and give a tremendous impulse to the Italian economic system: unfortunately, the Italian managers revealed themselves tremendously incapable, and squandered such a richness in the following years [Scalfari, Turani, 1974]. It has been correctly remarked, by an unsuspectable author, Ippolito, that the State could have bought the electrical utilities at a very low cost after the war, whereas it helped and supported their recuperation (we have already commented on the pernicious role of the private electrical industry): in that case the Italian history could have been completely different [Ippolito, 1974, p. 72]; in 1962, moreover, the electrical industry had already exploited the main benefits from the existing resources, so that nationalization resulted in a big business.

The first centre-left government finally approved in December 1962 the Nuclear Law, which established that the production of nuclear energy is a prerogative of the State, or of societies of prevailing state participation. The second five-year plan had already been approved (October 1962), providing for the installation until 1970 of 1.000-1.500 MW with 2-4 nuclear plants.

8. The “Ippolito trial” (among other alarming events), 1962-64, and the stop to the Italian Nuclear programs

Behind these apparently successful events, however, the political and economic circles, both national and international, were very worried and perceived a great danger for their privileges and business. Starting exactly from 1962 a succession of alarming events, which could hardly be considered as accidental and not coordinated, eliminated the most resourceful Italian protagonists and stopped the most advanced experiences. One can hardly avoid the impression that the history of Italy met a cross-road, and that the most conservative forces (among which mafia) and the most powerful international interests succeeded in eliminating every chance of progressive development, growth and competence in Italy: in the subsequent decades a lot of “mysteries” and unsolved murders and butcheries have blooded the history of the country (remember Pierpaolo Pasolini’s sentence: “I know”). On the other hand, already in 1960 there had been an attempt of fascist revival with the Tambroni cabinet and bloody street reactions. It has been proved that among the political and financial supporters of the Tambroni cabinet there was a part of the private electrical industry, decided to stop at any cost the discussion that had started in the Parliament on the law of nationalization: it has been alluded to “black funds”, and Giorgio Valerio’s involvement.

On October 27, 1962, Enrico Mattei – the unscrupulous oil bargainer with the Arab countries, circumventing the “Seven Sisters” – died in a crash of his personal aircraft, whose cause have never been clarified, but was almost certainly malicious.

Just a couple of months before, August 11, in the mid of vacations, the “Corriere della Sera” had published a note by the already mentioned President of the Socialist Democratic Party (PSDI), Giuseppe Saragat, with the title: “Electricity and nuclear energy: dilapidations denounced by Saragat”: this ambiguous individual, strongly linked with the American circles, affirmed that ENEL was a good company, while the CNEN’s General Secretary, Ippolito, administered in a quite questionable way the funds from the State: and running the nuclear plants was absolutely uneconomic in comparison with traditional plants. This preliminary attack was therefore against nuclear energy, and Ippolito, who was its most combative supporter. It is impossible, and out of place, here to enter into details on this affair, which has still many obscure aspects. Its substance however is very clear: trough the person of Ippolito, the final aim was to stop the Italian nuclear programs and projects! In Italy bureaucracy has always been extremely complicated, and difficult to respect in any detail: in any case, no matter how illicit could have been Ippolito’s administration, this could not have justified the stop of the nuclear programs. However, this was precisely what happened!

There was a commission of inquiry, and a penal case against Ippolito, who was sentenced to 11- years jail. He was the sacrificial lamb, the politicians who formally had to direct CNEN and authorize Ippolito’s expenditures were not even mentioned. The Italian scientific community was in its majority sympathetic with Ippolito, Edorado Amaldi, the most influential, publicly attacked Saragat, but all that was irrelevant: the problem was a political one.

Subsequently Saragat was elected President of the Republic. In later years Ippolito was rehabilitated, “pardoned” by Saragat, end even bestowed “for his scientific merits”, and with the Cross “for merits” of the Republic. But the CNEN was clearly brought to a standstill, no more five-years plan was promoted, its budget dramatically decayed, every project stopped: it was ENEL which, only in 1970, ordered the fourth Italian nuclear plant (Section 9), while it abandoned the development of hydroelectric power in favour of oil! The collusion between oil merchants, political parties, and ENEL would emerge 10 years later (Section 10).

The Ippolito and Mattei cases were not isolated. In 1962 Domenico Marotta, although already retired, was denounced for irregularities: he had been an eminent chemist and manager, and as a Director of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità brought the Institute to reach a high international level. Directing a scientific institution became a very dangerous job in Italy! A distinguished scientist as Adriano Buzzati-Traverso spoke in the weekly L’Espresso of “a new witch-hunt ongoing in Italy”.

One more case was that of the Olivetti utility, which had reached a world leader level in electronic computers: but in 1964 the “Group of Control” of the firm – composed by Fiat, Pirelli and two public banks – decided to transfer, with total indifference from Government, the Electronic Division to General Electric!

9. The fourth nuclear plant

We will fly on the sorry business of the decay of CNEN, which in 8 years became an “ente inutile” (useless corporation). ENEL took away all its prerogatives, and with the nationalization of electric energy inherited from the privates the three nuclear plants and also the technical staff. Even inside ENEL, besides in the country, there was an influent “oil party” (Section 10): but there was also e strong “nuclear party”, reinforced by the Communist Party (PCI) and the Unions.

On the other hand, in any case the second five-years plan had become outdated, since the models for nuclear plants were being defined. The PCI engaged Ippolito, but it had no clear ideas on nuclear matters, like the majority of the political class.

When the idea of new nuclear plants returned, around the end of the decade, ENEL called for tenders, getting 6 offers, from American, British, and other European utilities. There were political pressures and compromises. A compromise with the “oil party” was the option for the purchase of only one plant. The “American party” prevailed against a European choice. Finally an 840 MW BWR reactor form General Electric was chosen, which actually was a somewhat hybrid model, of transition between nuclear power plant generation I and II. The PCI was substantially left as a sop the “swindle” of Cirene.

The construction of new plant began at Caorso (Northern Italy) in 1970, by a consortium ENEL-Ansaldo Nucleare-GETSCO: works should have been finished in 1975, but suffered of delays and cost increase, tests began in 1978, and the connection to the electrical grid was done in 1981.

10. The 1973 oil crisis and the “scandal of oil”

The 1973 oil crisis subverted all the concepts and world previsions on energy resources, production, and consumption. Not for this it offered new ways for further enrichments!

At the beginning of 1974 some magistrates investigate on the cornering of oil during the Kippur war, and find burning oil-managers documents, compromising all the political parties (excluded PCI), ENEL’s managers, ministers, for illegal procedures and subventions in favour of the oil industry: in Italy the “Seven Sisters” ruled. The scandal caused those who had stopped nuclear energy to emerge.

As it often happens in Italy, in spite of corruptions for billions of Italian Lire (millions US Dollars), at the end no legal consequence impinged on political representatives and managers.

11. The Seventies: the troubled path of the Italian nuclear projects, the Energetic National Programs (PEN), and the growth of popular and environmentalist opposition against the nuclear choice, until the Three Mile Island accident

Although a law of rearrangement of CNEN had been approved in 1971, its new role was delayed, so that it was ENEL which commissioned the Caorso plant, and in 1973-74 proposed four nuclear plants to be localized in Central Italy, two in Lazio (it would have been subsequently Montalto di Castro, see later) and two in Molise.

In 1975 CNEN submitted, and CIPE (Comitato Interministeriale per la Programmazione Economica approved,  a “Piano Energetico Nazionale” (PEN), foreseeing different future scenarios for energy demand in Italy, and for electric energy the installation in the period 1983-85 of a nuclear power of 13.000-19.000 MW, and further plants for a total nuclear power in 1990 between 46.100 and 62.100 MW.

The possible localizations had been preliminarily studied by ENEL, and were fixed by quickly approved laws. Actually these laws of the recently published American “Reactor Safety Study” (known as “Rasmussen Report”), which suggested a safety zone around nuclear plants of 16 km radius, successively confirmed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1978. In any case, the previsions of the PEN were recognized as exaggerated.

In the meanwhile, ENEL entered with a 30 % participation in the French program (NERSA, Nucléaire Européenne à neutron Rapid S.A.) of fast breeder reactors,[1] plus a 25 % participation in the French gas diffusion enrichment plant Eurodif. Moreover in 1976 the silly project was elaborated of a second enrichment plant to be built in Italy, Coredif, fuelled by four nuclear plants of 1.000 MW each! (Four times the total installed nuclear power, including the not yet operative Caorso plant). Fond ambitions went back, with the typical Italian style of improvisations and contradictions. Consider that France was developing its Force de Frappe, and had a strong need of plutonium and highly enriched uranium: nothing similar was happening, thankfully, in Italy!

In the same 1976 the study of environmental impact was presented for the localization of the mentioned 2.000 MW nuclear plant at Montalto di Castro (Maremma), which would lead to the authorization for the construction in 1979. In 1977 Donat Cattin, Ministry of Industry in the 3rd Andreotti cabinet, issued an ultimatum to the Regions in order that they indicated the sites for the construction of 20 nuclear plants!

Actually, in the meanwhile strong protests were growing, from the interested populations, committees, environmentalist associations, some minority political forces, and even local administrations. Big demonstrations took place at Montalto di Castro, Viadana, Suzzara, San Benedetto Po (in Lombardy, when the localization of nuclear plants was proposed there); the associations WWF and “Italia Nostra” collaborated, produced documents, and summoned meetings and debates; the Lombardy Region appointed a Commission of study on nuclear plants, and asked for an advice by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità. In these harsh debates, one should take into account the very peculiar structure of the Italian territory, with many mountains and few flat lands, a high density of population and of towns.

However the majority of the political forces and Unions were strongly in favour of nuclear energy, including the majority of the Communist Party and the left-wing Union CGIL. In any case, in response to these movement the political debate grew: the Commission of Industry of the Parliament held a fact-finding inquiry, and there was a Parliamentary debate.

A second PEN was approved by CIPE in December 1977, providing for the immediate construction of “only” 12-13 nuclear plants, leaving the remaining 8 after 1985 (the provisions of the PEN for future electric energy needs would later come out as exaggerated, it was en “electric” rather than an “energy” plan,  several reported data were wrong, o contradictory). In response to this, the popular protests and march grew even more. The more so when Prodi (the same Prime Minister pre-Berlusconi in 2006-2008: in Italy we say: “Sometimes they come back”!), Ministry of Industry in the 4th Andreotti cabinet (he also always the same! Or cloned?), on 19 February 1979 authorized the construction of the plant in Montalto di Castro: just before the Three Mile Island accident, on 28 March 1979! In the same days the movie “Chinese Syndrome”, with Jane Fonda, came out. In the meanwhile, in August 1978 the Garigliano plant had been definitely shut down after several accidents.

The 5th Andreotti cabinet fell down, and before the political elections a huge national protest took place in Rome on 19 May 1979.

A couple of remarks should be added to this reconstruction. First of all, who should have paid for these gigantic projects? The funds should be anticipated, at an high rate, by the American Export Import Bank, and in his 1977 visit in the US Andreotti got the support of the Monetary Fund, offering both political (no access of PCI to government) and economic (unpopular measures) guarantees. The modest Italian industrial (private and public) groups were fighting for the different patents (Westinghouse’s PWR, General Electric’s BWR, Babcock and Wilson’s PWR, and Canadian Candu). Second question, the opposition of the oil industry had disappeared? On the contrary: the fact is that the “Seven Sister” were increasingly investing in the nuclear sector, “Elementary, Watson”! (the same 1973 oil crisis had been piloted from New York in order to make nuclear energy and American oil competitive)

12. From the Seventies to the Eighties: feverish succession of Committees, inquiries, Governmental decisions, movements and protests, until the show dawn.

Actually, the succession of events became increasingly feverish and excited, and the nuclear problem rose as one of the hottest in the Italian context. We will resume the main lines.

One must recall that in the US, following the Three Mile Island accident, two commissions were appointed (headed respectively by Kemeny and Rogovin), which invited the nuclear utilities to radically change their safety regulations, and proposed to authorize the nuclear plants far from residential areas, to provide emergency plans approved by a Federal agency for safety, and to provide for the evacuation in case of accidents of the population in a radius of 30-40 km. In almost the regions of Italy tens of thousand people should be evacuated!

In Italy, on the institutional side, in June 1979 the results of a fact-finding special ecological commission from the Senate got a majority of favourable opinions, with the relevant exception WWF, “Italia Nostra”, and Prof. Pavan. In December the new Ministry of Industry, Bisaglia,  appointed a Committee on nuclear safety, which approved a document with the relevant opposition, and a minority report, from the three environmentalist representatives, denouncing the deficiency of the Italian safety rules with respect to the international ones. The PEN was successively revised in 1980 and 1981, providing for the construction of nuclear plants for at least 6.000 MW (indicating the Regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, Campania, Puglia, and Sicily), with a Nuclear Unified Plan (PUN) based on the PWR Westinghouse reactor (note the contradiction with the previous choice of the BWR Caorso plant from General Electric). Note that in these same years Italy had to reduce from 25 to 16,5 % its participation in Eurodif enrichment plant, and had to undersell a part of the enriched uranium it had already acquired, following the down-sizing of the nuclear ambitions.

In the meantime, in 1982 CNEN acquired the new name ENEA (Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Nucleare e le Energie Alternative!), with a few changes, but a new research section on renewable energies: a fond choice, since the new 1985 PEN confirmed 12.000 MW of nuclear energy.

In the years 1981-1983 the opposition against nuclear energy grew further. Several municipalities expressed their opposition. A law in 1983 provided for economic incentives (corruption?) to those municipalities which had accepted nuclear and thermoelectric plants in their territory (besides nuclear, also coal was pushed by the various PENs).

ENEA expressed its positive opinion for the suitability of the sites of Viadana and San Benedetto Po, and ENEL begun the geological tests. Anti-nuclear manifestations, fights with policy, and arrests followed. Two municipal popular referendums were hold: Viadana, 1984, 91 % contrary; San Benedetto Po, 1985, 4.876 no against 549 yes. In 1985 there was a big march in Rome.

It must be remarked that the anti-nuclear movement was reinforced by the “Euromissiles” crisis (the “Atomic Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was put at barely 3 minutes from Midnight! The debate on “nuclear winter” grew, the movie “The Day After” further impressed the public), and the opposition to the deployment of Cruise missiles in Comiso, Sicily.

13. The last acts of the comedy

We arrive to the penultimate act, ironically only 36 days before the Chernobyl accident! On 20 March 1986 the CIPE approved the 4th PEN (if the progressive number makes sense), providing only for the construction of the 2.000 MW plant at Montalto di Castro, plus 2.000 MW more at Trino Vercellese, in Piedmont (never begun), and the localization until 1986 of two more 2.000 MW plants each, respectively in Lombardy and Puglia; in addition it provided the acquisition of 400 MW from the 1.2000 MW fast reactor Superphenix under construction in France, a very unfortunate project, for which the Italian tax payers have paid the 30 % for two decades.

On 9-13 April 1986 the PCI held its XVII congress, in which an anti-nuclear motion was presented and got almost 50 %.

Two weeks later, on 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl accident happened. It raised a deep impression and a wide worry for the behaviour of the “Chernobyl cloud”, and the public debate and polemic revived. Local and national manifestations (Rome, 10 May) proliferated. In July the gathering of firms for a national referendum began. In October, after a huge manifestation at Montalto di Castro, the Craxi cabinet decided the stop to the yard, and called for a big Conference on Energy, which was held in February 1987 without any important result.

The execution of the referendum, on 8-9 November 1987, was the prologue of the last act of the Italian nuclear comedy. It is well known that in the referendum almost 80 % of the votes were against nuclear. The legitimate question is: did this result univocally impose the closure of every nuclear power activity? The popular will in this sense was evident (though the Chernobyl accident undoubtedly played a role). The problem is that the Italian law formally allows only for “abolitionist” referendums, concerning specific existing laws or regulations. So that the referendum abrogated: (1) the prerogative of CIPE to decide the localization of nuclear plants, when the interested municipalities did not decide, (2) the compensation for the municipalities which hosted nuclear or coal plants; and (3) the possibility for ENEL to participate in international nuclear programs (in this case, Superphenix).

Here the last act intervened (although a resurrection seems to have been decided in the last months by the Berlusconi cabinet: the conditional is always convenient). In the aftermath of the referendum the Government (the fist Goria cabinet) suspended the project of the Trino plant, shot down the Latina plant, and started verifications on the safety of the Caorso plant, and the feasibility of the Montalto di Castro plant under construction (for the non-nuclear parts).

In any case, the final decisions were solomonic, as it happens in Italy. In the subsequent years all the Italian nuclear plants were stopped and closed (they are still waiting for decommissioning, and they will wait a very long time, while the majority of the fuels elements are still in the deactivation pools, often in precarious conditions: one can see a recent very interesting and complete inquiry from RAI-3 transmission “Reports”: Not only this: almost every activity in the field of nuclear energy has been stopped, competencies and agencies reconverted to other fields.

Here the epilogue of one history joins to the eventual prologue of a new history: the relaunch of nuclear programs by the Berlusconi government. But this comedy has not yet been written, nor played.


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[1]  The authors are undertaking a research project on the history and archive of PEC at the ENEA research centre at Brasimone (Bologna), in collaboration with the Archivist school of Rome University “la Sapienza”.

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