Italians have voted overwhelmingly against a return to nuclear power, repealing regulation that allowed for the construction of new reactors in a national referendum.
The poll held on 12 and 13 June included three questions besides nuclear; on privatisation of water supplies and water tariffs as well as highly controversial immunity from prosecution for government ministers. Italy turned out in the biggest numbers for a decade to roundly reject all of them. On the nuclear question 54.79% of citizens responded, and 94.05% of these voted against the construction of any new nuclear reactors in Italy.
"I do feel personally
that it is a grave error
to confront our future
without the possibility
of nuclear power"
Italian Nuclear Safety Agency
Despite being a pioneer of nuclear science and engineering, Italy is now unique in the world for having twice rejected the technology and also for actually closing its nuclear plants in line with this policy. Other 'phase-out' countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands have changed course, while much work still lies ahead of Switzerland and Germany to make real their aspirations to replace nuclear with renewables.
At the conclusion of a press conference on Monday before the ballot had closed, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said Italy would have to "say goodbye to nuclear power" and that the government would concentrate its efforts on renewable energies. He later released a statement saying that "even if a referendum is not considered the best instrument for confronting complex questions, it's clear that Italians have a firm position on these issues."
The head of Italy's Nuclear Safety Agency, Umberto Veronesi, expressed a mixed reaction to the referendum outcome. "I am satisfied by the voter turnout which is a sign of strong civil participation and this a good sign for the country, and I bow to the will of the people with respects to a negative decision on nuclear energy."
"However I do feel personally that it is a grave error to confront our future energy insufficiency without the possibility of nuclear power... I am afraid that Italian research, which has been concentrating on nuclear fusion, will halt and we all know that without research there is no future. My fear is that Italy will finish as a tourist appendix to the advanced world," he said.
His comments were echoed by Chicco Testa, chair of the Forum Nucleare Italiano, a non-profit consortia of nuclear research bodies and enterprises. "We acknowledge with respect the opinion of voters expressed through the referendum. However an energy strategy that can respond to the needs of future scenarios remains necessary for the country, looking particularly at savings in energy efficiency. Italy needs to continue to monitor research and development in the use of nuclear technology with a view to modernisation and increased competitivity," he said.
The referendum comprised four separate questions regarding the privatisation of water resources and water tariffs; an exemption from attending criminal proceedings for the prime minister and ministers of the government while in office; as well as the construction of nuclear reactors in the country.
The governing centre-right coalition led by Berlusconi suffered a comprehensive defeat in recent local elections, and some analysts said the referendum outcome was further proof of Italians' growing disenchantment with their prime minister.
However Antonio di Pietro, leader of the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party that had instigated the referendum, said that the outcome should not be over-politicised as it represented the opinion of Italians on concrete questions, regardless of whether they had voted for Berlusconi's coalition or not.
Berlusconi had actually urged citizens to not vote in the referendum and several ministers had followed his lead. Other representatives of Italy's major universities and scientific institutions had also appealed to voters to not fill in the nuclear ballot.
Italy's previous nuclear power plants were all shut down following a referendum in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident - a move that was described in 2008 as a '€50 billion mistake' by then economic minister Claudio Scajola. The latest referendum outcome will not affect decommissioning work on those retired nuclear sites, nor the search for a national repository for radioactive waste.
By Lee Adendorff
for World Nuclear News