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By Giselda Vagnoni
ROME May 22 Italy should lift its 20-year ban on nuclear power and start building new reactors within five years to ease dependence on energy imports, Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola said on Thursday.
Italy banned the construction of nuclear power plants in a 1987 referendum after the Chernobyl disaster. But calls from industry leaders and politicians for an atomic energy revival have intensified as oil prices have stormed to record highs, hitting $135 on Thursday CLc1.
"During this parliament's term, we will lay the first stone for the construction of a group of new-generation nuclear power stations," Scajola told an annual meeting of the country's powerful industrialists' group Confindustria.
Italy relies on oil and gas imports to meet more than 80 percent of its energy needs and power prices are among the highest in Europe.
Scajola said Italy's energy bill is worth about 60 billion euros ($94.56 billion) and energy imports turn its trade balance negative.
Much of the imported power comes from France which generates about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors.
Italy is the only Group of Eight industrialised nation without nuclear power and could cut its dependence on imports.
"Only nuclear plants will allow us to produce energy on a large scale, in a safe way, at competitive costs and with respect to environment. We need to rebuild (nuclear) competence ... and find reliable solutions for radioactive waste," he said.
Scajola, a close ally of nuclear-friendly Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who won elections last month, called for a nuclear renaissance when he was industry minister in Berlusconi's previous government.
Industry experts say it would take about 10 years before any new nuclear plants could start generating electricity, if the ban was overruled by a government decree.
But even nuclear energy supporters say it would be extremely difficult to overcome strong public opposition to atomic energy.
Confindustria's new president, Emma Marcegaglia, said the 1987 ban was an emotional reaction to Chernobyl and that it was time to resume investment in nuclear energy.
Fulvio Conti, chief executive of Italy's biggest utility Enel (ENEI.MI), said his group was technically ready to revive the nuclear industry.
Enel used to own all Italy's nuclear plants before the ban and is now gaining more nuclear experience abroad.
Scajola also pledged to control surging gasoline prices on the domestic market by shortening the fuel distribution chain and easing taxes on some types of transport.
To boost energy infrastructure -- and overcome strong local opposition to any big industrial project in Italy -- the government would simplify permitting procedures and give incentives to local communities agreeing to new projects, he said. Scajola also promised to press ahead with liberalisation and privatisation in local public services.
Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore said on Thursday Italian energy company Del Fungo Giera Energia had struck a preliminary deal to help Russia with technology to build about 20 new nuclear power stations over the next 20 years.
(Writing by Svetlana Kovalyova)