(Adds comment, background)
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
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
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)