MILAN (Reuters) - Japan's reactor crisis means Italy's plans to reintroduce nuclear power look dead in the water ahead of a June referendum on the issue.
Concern has risen that the Japan disaster may approach the extent of the Chernobyl accident, which was instrumental in turning Italian sentimenet against nuclear power in a national referendum in 1987.
The government, which had so far stuck to its guns, appeared to soften its stance on the nuclear programme when Industry Minister Paolo Romani said on Thursday Italy needed time to reflect on its nuclear programme.
"I think there is now less than 0.01 percent chance for nuclear in Italy," said Luigi De Paoli, energy economy professor at the Bocconi University in Milan.
"The government does not want to say it officially but is acknowledging Italy will not realize its nuclear plans."
Earthquake risk is fresh in the minds of Italians after its worst tremor since 1980 struck central Italy around the city of L'Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people and flattening whole towns.
The center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi has put a nuclear revival, opposed by the center-left Democratic Party, at the heart of its energy plans to cut dependency on imports -- representing 80 percent of needs -- and high power prices.
A referendum on plans to restart nuclear power generation to cover 25 percent of energy supply is expected around mid-June.
But as the Japan nuclear crisis worsens, Italian government officials have started to backpedal.
"Our country has to take a moment to understand what we are doing... We should take a pause to reflect and above all, we cannot make choices which are not shared by everyone," Romani told reporters on Thursday.
A poll published earlier this week showed that 53 percent of Italians were now against nuclear plans with only 35 percent in favor and 12 percent undecided, Antonio Noto, director at polling company IPR Marketing, said.
Polls previously showed the 'No' and 'Yes' camps each attracted roughly 45 percent of the vote.
"If the flood of negative news from Japan continues at this pace, it is clear that more people will be motivated to go and vote against Italy's plan and the quorum reached," Noto said.
"But we need to see whether these intentions will crystalise in actual votes."
The referendum will be considered valid if at least 50 percent of voters show up.
"It's clear that if the alarm in Tokyo does not ease over the next couple of days, this will create a sense of panic that will impact on the referendum," political commentator Stefano Folli said in daily Il Sole 24 Ore on Wednesday.
Italy's biggest utility Enel has plans to start building nuclear power stations in the country together with French power giant EDF in 2013, with first power expected around 2020.
"The Italian referendum on allowing new nuclear would likely be defeated, unless it is delayed," said nuclear energy sector consultant Jonathan Robinson, at consultants Frost & Sullivan.
"Even a delay may not be enough. The opposition left parties that are currently tipped as most likely to form the next government are broadly opposed to nuclear and could abandon a future referendum or effectively block plans for new plants."