News Analysis: Japan's nuclear troubles may have political fallout in Italy

15:07, March 17, 2011      

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By Eric J. Lyman

As Japanese workers labor to contain the damage to nuclear reactors caused by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the country on March 11, indications are that Italy may be rethinking its plans to reintroduce nuclear power in the country after a 24-year hiatus.

The problems in Japan have had implications on nuclear energy policy around the world. The European Union on Tuesday, for example, agreed to conduct comprehensive stress tests on nuclear reactors within the 27-nation bloc, and Germany said it would at least temporarily halt a plan to extend the life of plants already operating in that country.

But Italy is the only major country actively working to reintroduce nuclear power within its borders. The country has set a national referendum on the topic to be held before June 15, and the Italian government has been saying for two years that the reintroduction of nuclear power was a key part of a wider strategy to lower energy prices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs, and become more independent of foreign sources of energy. The ground breaking for the first plants is scheduled for 2013, with the first power to be produced by 2020.

Nuclear power was outlawed in Italy in 1987, just after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the then-Soviet Union.

The argument over whether the 1987 law should be overturned has been a polarizing one in Italy, where opinion polls show that nearly two-third of Italians say they are against nuclear power and where environmental groups have worried about the health and environmental risks of the plants. According to Greenpeace-Italy, 12 of Italy's 21 regional governments say they oppose hosting nuclear reactors within their borders.

Officially, government officials say there has been no change in policy and that they are awaiting the results of the upcoming referendum. But in recent days there are signs that the Italian government's aggressive pro-nuclear power stance may be shifting.

On Monday, for example, Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno -- a strong ally of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for years -- said Japan should be a "test case" for Italy's nuclear plans. And more importantly, on Wednesday, Stefano Saglia, Italy's undersecretary within the Ministry of Economic Development said that no region should be forced to host a nuclear power plant against its will -- a dramatic departure from the previous government position.

According to G.B. Zorzoli, president of ISES-Italia, a wind power lobby group, it is natural that the power plant problems in Japan are giving Italians pause about the risks associated with their own nuclear power ambitions.

"The government assures that these plants will be safe, which just reminds me that I visited one of the damaged Japanese plants several years ago and they were very proud of the safety features they built in," Zorzoli said in an interview.

"They said it could withstand the most severe earthquake, and it did. The problem didn't start until the tsunami hit. My point is that there are always risks you cannot predict and that understandably has people worried here,"Zorzoli added.

But Domenico Belli, energy consultant with the environmental group Greenpeace-Italia, told Xinhua he was not so sure the tragedy in Japan would derail Italy's plans.

"In a normal country, yes, you would expect these events to have an impact," Belli said. "In Italy, I'm not so sure. Here, everything is so wrapped up in political factors that I would not be surprised to see things go ahead as planned despite all that has happened."

Source: Xinhua

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