The Italian government has put the country's rebooted nuclear program into a holding pattern, introducing an amendment yesterday that will extend indefinitely a moratorium on the construction of new reactors.
The cabinet has been charged meanwhile with the formulation of a new energy strategy that takes into account "the position of the European Union and of competent international authorities" as regards nuclear energy in the period after the accident at Fukushima.
A spokesperson for Forum Nucleare Italiano, a non-profit organisation of nuclear enterprises, universities and unions, said that the amendment will halt the construction of new plants in Italy but that it will neither stop the formation of a planned new national agency for nuclear safety nor the identification of the location for a new nuclear technology park and a national waste store.
Public opposition to the nuclear program in Italy has been at an all-time high since the Fukushima accident. One survey published by the Fullresearch institute in March indicated that seven out of ten Italians were against new nuclear plants in the country.
The national president of environmental organisation Legambiente, Vittorio Cogliati Dezza, said that the government's decision had been provoked by the realisation they would have lost the upcoming June referendum on a return to nuclear power, where analysts were anticipating significant participation.
Yet opposition politicians say the amendment is not as much a reaction to public opinion as an attempt on the part of Silvio Berlusconi's government to sabotage voter turnout at the referendum, which he had initially hoped to win, but now is expecting lose. They note that Berlusconi had added two other questions to the same referendum: about plans for the privatisation of water services and on a key piece of legislation on 'legitimate impediment' that would effectively exempt Berlusconi from criminal trials when he is in office. He is of course currently facing trial in four separate high-profile cases.
Berlusconi's original idea, said his opposition, had been to push through his immunity law alongside what he thought would be a low-profile vote on nuclear power. But should the nuclear question be dropped, the referendum would still take place on the other two issues.
A vocal opponent of Berlusconi and leader of the opposition party Italia dei Valori, Antonio di Pietro, said in a press conference yesterday that: "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 program] will draw people to vote where there is a law at stake that he is much more worried about, that of legitimate impediment."
The Court of Cassation, Italy's Supreme Court, will now decide if the question on the nuclear program in the June referendum should be omitted. The amendment to the nuclear moratorium will be passed through the parliament for a final vote and should be converted into law at the latest by 31 May.
A spokesperson for Sogin, the company charged with decommissioning Italy's former nuclear power sites and locating the new national waste store and technology park, said that their work would not be affected.
Italian energy leader Enel, which launched an equal basis joint-venture in 2009 with French company EDF for the feasibility studies and eventual construction of new reactors in Italy, had no comment to make on the government's decision.
By Lee Adenorff
for World Nuclear News