20 april 2011

Italy freezes return to nuclear power

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Financial Times, April 19 2011

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government has given up plans to relaunch Italy’s nuclear industry in response to growing public opposition in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

A bill tabled in the Senate on Tuesday would abrogate earlier legislation that set out a process for the selection of sites and construction of nuclear power stations for the first time since Italians voted in 1987 to get rid of the country’s four existing power plants.

Mr Berlusconi made a return to nuclear power one of his main campaign proposals in the 2008 general elections and, as prime minister, he backed a nuclear tie-up between Italy’s Enel and France’s EDF for four new plants.

In the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, Italian ministers insisted the relaunch would go ahead.

As public disquiet mounted, however, they announced a one-year moratorium in the hope of defeating a national referendum already scheduled for mid-June that would – if backed by more than 50 per cent of the electorate – cancel the programme.

Industry insiders said the legislation tabled on Tuesday amounted to an open-ended freeze and probably spelled the end of a nuclear revival, at least under the current government.

Some anti-nuclear activists declared victory, while others saw a government “trick” to nullify the referendum while keeping open the option of a return to nuclear power at some point.

Italy’s nuclear plans had already been delayed by government infighting and funding problems even before disaster struck Japan. The newly established nuclear safety agency – which will remain in place to deal with nuclear waste and ongoing decommissioning of the pre-1987 reactors – was recently reported to be holding its meetings in a bar because of a lack of premises.

Separately, Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, on Tuesday challenged the economics of nuclear power, arguing that “cheaper” energy promised by the industry did not take into account the cost of eventually decommissioning plants.

He proposed that the European Union launch eurobonds to develop renewable energy sources.

Public confidence in the government’s expertise was not helped when Stefano Saglia, the senior industry ministry official in charge of the nuclear relaunch, assured reporters that Italy could not suffer a Fukushima-style disaster because the Mediterranean did not experience tsunamis – apparently unaware that thousands of people were killed by a post-quake tsunami that hit the Sicilian city of Messina in 1908 in Europe’s worst natural disaster.

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