Europe

Italy's atomic shift on nuclear power

A Greenpeace sign hangs from Florence's Pontevecchio bridge

In Italy, Yes can mean No.

So it is with nuclear power, at least for some people.

This weekend, Italians will take part in a referendum to decide whether they want to say, "Nuclear, no thanks," or to embrace it as a power source of the future.

Somewhat awkwardly for voters, the question on the ballot paper is phrased as a negative. So to vote against nuclear energy, they have to tick Yes on the referendum.

Hence, Yes means No. The No campaigners are confident that their time has come.

After years battling what they thought were the insurmountable forces of government and business intent on taking Italy into the nuclear world, the mood, the tide, the direction appears to have changed in their direction.

Global shift

Why? In a word: Fukushima.

The Japanese nuclear disaster has concentrated once-hesitant minds and created what looks like a global shift away from nuclear power, at least for now.

Image caption For years, Italy's anti-nuclear movement has been seen as outdated and irrelevant

Germany's atomic exit has been the biggest move, so far.

It recently announced that all of its nuclear power plants will be phased out by 2022.

Now Italy is voting on it and the polls show a clear majority in favour of going the same way.

It will not be the first time - this is the country's second nuclear referendum.

In 1987, shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, Italy voted to close all existing nuclear power stations.

For more than 20 years it has been the only major European Union country without its own nuclear energy industry.

It has relied, instead, on imported supplies - oil from Libya, natural gas from the Gulf and hydro-electric power from Alpine neighbours to the north.

But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided that was not a sound strategy, so he resolved to go back to the future by rekindling the old nuclear programme.

A year ago, the government passed a law to re-start it.

Deals and contracts were lined up with the French and others to begin building new plants.

Objections were intolerable; the process seemed unstoppable, until the tsunami.

Almost immediately, the government realised it could not simply carry on as planned.

Pressing pause

It pressed the pause button, putting nuclear plans on hold for a year.

Image caption The referendum is turning into a confidence vote on Silvio Berlusconi

It then tried to stop the planned referendum, using the courts to block it.

But it failed, not least, says Greenpeace, because a year-long delay was not anything like enough to meet public fears and concerns.

"Nuclear power is outdated," says Salvatore Barbera, from the campaign group.

"It's dirty, dangerous and expensive. Fukushima changed people's minds, but they already knew that other forms of renewable energy supplies were the only way forward," he says.

In the current climate of nuclear neurosis, it can be hard to find people to stand up and make the argument for nuclear power.

But we went to the business community, for its take on the energy/safety/cost equation.

At the Aero Sekur company, south of Rome, they make everything for aviation safety - from parachute repairs to giant airbags for helicopters ditching on water.

What they crave, apart from safe products, is secure energy supplies.

"Long-term investments can't be made without guaranteed electricity sources," says Silvio Rossignoli.

"Only nuclear power can provide that certainty. Wind, sun and other renewables are important, but they can never match the demands of industry, in particular. They're only ever going to be marginal players."

Toxic

In Italy, these days, almost every test of public opinion appears to end up as a check on Silvio Berlusconi's popularity.

And so it is with the nuclear referendum.

Political opponents are using it to undermine, weaken and humiliate the prime minister, equating the calamity of his private life with the toxicity of the nuclear debate.

Strangely, for the usually effusive Mr Berlusconi, there has been uncharacteristic silence on the subject.

But, as an astute politician, he knows that in the aftermath of Fukushima, there is no point in trying to flag up one of his flagship policies.

The result could well depend on turnout. To be valid, it needs a turnout of 50% plus one - that is around 27 million Italians.

Such is the attention being given to the referendum on all media platforms that that may well be a realistic outcome.

Italy could be about to turn its back, again, on nuclear power.

For those advocates of its benefits, that would create unnecessary doubt about future energy sources.

But for those opposed, it would bring victory after years of often unfashionable protest against a source of power that they believe is unsafe, un-needed and unwelcome.

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