Is it arrivederci to nuclear power in Italy?

The Italian government has prioritised risk-avoidance and short-term political survival over acute energy needs.

On 10 May, Greenpeace activists hung an anti-nuclear banner, depicting Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, from the balcony in Rome where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once addressed his followers. The Greenpeace banner read: ‘Italians, I decide your future.’ It refers to the removal of a question about reviving nuclear power in Italy from a multi-question referendum planned for 12 and 13 June. Italy’s senate had approved a government proposal on 20 April to block plans for a revival of nuclear power generation in Italy. The country’s supreme court, the Court of Cassation, is now faced with assessing whether the nuclear question will be left out of the June referendum. Then the Italian parliament is due a final vote on amending nuclear legislation by the end of May.

Restarting nuclear plants was one of the key promises of the current government when it was elected in 2008. Legislation was passed in 2008 to permit the construction of nuclear power stations. Agreements have been signed with energy companies to build four new nuclear plants from 2013. Energy companies, especially Enel of Italy and EDF of France, could lose millions of euros already invested in preparations for reviving nuclear energy in Italy.

Italy’s nuclear industry was dismantled after votes in three referenda in 1987. This was the apogee of an anti-nuclear campaign championed by the environmental movement, which became a formidable social movement in Italy during the 1980s. The 1987 referenda votes against nuclear power also came in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986. The combination of framing this accident as a public-health risk and popular momentum behind the environmental movement closed Italy’s nuclear industry (1). On 26 April this year, demonstrations in Italy and around the world for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl accident highlighted the dangers of nuclear energy.

Fears about nuclear power have increased in the run-up to the nuclear referendum this June following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. After the Fukushima accident, the Italian government in March announced a one-year moratorium on its nuclear programme. As in many countries, risk-aversion has governed the reaction to the Fukushima accident and resulted in backing off from nuclear energy. ‘The decision to abolish legal measures for the construction of nuclear power stations is perfectly in line with the strategies announced by countries like Germany, the United States, Japan and Russia’, declared Italy’s economic development minister Paolo Romani. ‘It’s important to continue and look to the future, using the best technologies available on the market for the production of clean energy, particularly in the field of renewables and green energy’, added Romani. A poll by the Ipsos institute in March 2011 found that almost 90 per cent of Italians would prefer to invest in renewable energy than restart nuclear energy production.

Such polls led to predictions that the government’s nuclear programme would be defeated in the June referendum. Removing the nuclear question from June’s referendum is undemocratic; but it also seemed inevitable due to the government’s own failure to launch a robust defence of its nuclear programme. ‘Fukushima has shown us that major accidents are possible. I don’t say that voluntarily, having said that I was and remain pro-nuclear… but a pro-nuclear who knows very well that nuclear power is not culturally acceptable at the moment’, stated Romani. Indeed, the government’s one-year moratorium on the nuclear programme provided encouragement for voting against the programme in the June referendum. How could the government campaign for its nuclear programme before this referendum when it had already shelved the programme?

Moreover, stoking fears about nuclear power following the Fukushima accident might lead to a higher turnout for June’s referendum than previously expected. This could increase the likelihood that the government’s nuclear programme would be defeated.

However, the situation is complicated further by the fact that a high turnout for the multiple questions included in June’s referendum is likely to lead to other political problems for the government. Another question due to be included in the June referendum asks voters to approve the government’s plans for the privatisation of water. A question asking for an endorsement of legislation on ‘legitimate impediment’ is especially important for the survival of Italy’s troubled prime minister. Passing this legislation would exempt Berlusconi from criminal trials while he is prime minister; he is currently being prosecuted in four cases that are putting him under considerable political pressure.

Removing the question about the nuclear programme from the referendum could reduce the turnout and therefore lessen the possibility that Berlusconi and his government would be defeated on the other questions too. ‘With this amendment to block the construction of new nuclear plants the government is trying to fool citizens into not participating in the referendum. What the premier is scared of is that fear [about the nuclear programme] will draw people to vote where there is a law at stake that he is much more worried about, that of legitimate impediment’, remarked Antonio di Pietro, leader of the opposition party Italy of Values (5).

Berlusconi’s fragile government coalition is also facing opposition to the nuclear programme from within the coalition. The Northern League political party has challenged the possible construction of nuclear plants in northern Italy and is the key coalition partner for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party. This ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) sentiment against nuclear plants has even been expressed by government ministers. ‘As a good person from Livorno, can I say that it would be better to build an atomic plant in Pisa’, said Altero Matteoli with a heavy hint of irony. Matteoli is the minister of infrastructure and transport, a member of the PdL party and a self-declared advocate of nuclear energy.

The government’s political weaknesses and risk-aversion about nuclear power have taken precedent over long-term strategic planning for Italian energy. Italy is the only member of the Group of Eight industrialised nations that does not produce nuclear power. With limited natural resources and no nuclear power generation, Italy now imports approximately 86 per cent of its energy. This is far higher than the European Union average of 53 per cent, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Italy’s dependence on other countries for energy supply has made it vulnerable to shortfalls. The country’s first national blackouts for 21 years occurred in 2003, largely due to shortfalls in electricity supply from France’s very efficient nuclear industry. During the 2008-2009 winter, two months of gas reserves in Italy narrowly averted a crisis threatened by limited gas supplies from Russia.

Importing energy instead of producing it also means Italians pay the highest prices for electricity in the EU. This is a considerable burden on consumers in Italy as well as companies. In 2010, Italian companies paid twice as much for power as French companies, 40 per cent more than UK companies and 27 per cent more than German companies. Energy imports from nuclear sources in other countries increased following Italian legislation in 2004 to make this easier. Joint ventures between Italian companies and nuclear energy producers in France, Spain and Slovakia provided Italy with expensive nuclear power, but avoided Italian NIMBY opposition to local nuclear plants. The cancellation of Italy’s nuclear programme would lead to further reliance on energy imports as well as power generation from other sources, including coal. Where does that leave the government’s previously outlined energy strategy of reducing its dependence on fossil fuels from 80 to 50 per cent and cutting energy imports?

Following the proposal to cancel the nuclear programme, Romani suggested that the government would set out a new 20-year energy policy later this year. That means this government does not currently have an energy policy. Of course, it is possible that the nuclear programme will just be dropped for the June referendum and resurrected when the panic about Fukushima has died down. Even if we are only witnessing a suspension of the nuclear programme, this is not good enough. Energy policy and the nuclear industry require consistent, long-term planning. This government has been incapable of maintaining an energy policy for three years; promising to deliver on a 20-year plan stretches the imagination.

So what kind of Italian goodbye is appropriate for nuclear power? ‘Arrivederci’ means goodbye, yet also contains the sense of ‘see you again’. Italy’s daily financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore headlined an article about the stopping of the nuclear programme with the word ‘Addio’, which expresses a permanent goodbye. This is despite the article quoting the hopes of Emma Marcegaglia, president of the employers association Confindustria, that this is a pause for reflection rather than a definitive end for nuclear generation in Italy. This interpretation appeared to be reinforced by a statement from Prime Minister Berlusconi that if the nuclear referendum question had gone ahead, ‘nuclear power would not have been possible (in Italy) for years’. With such risk-aversion and political short-termism, will nuclear power generation ever be possible in Italy?

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa (USA)/CIMBA in Veneto, Italy and he is author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality, to be published by the University Press of America later this year. Visit his website here and contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Footnotes and references

(1) For a fuller explanation of this, see Nuclear Power and Environmentalism in Italy, Dominic Standish, Energy and Environment, Vol.20, No. 6, 2009