BRUSSELS/MILAN (Reuters) - Italy’s government is sticking to its nuclear energy programme despite an accident in Japan after an earthquake but a referendum on nuclear plant building later this year may derail the plans.
Italy, which is prone to earthquakes, is the only Group of Eight industrialized nation that does not produce nuclear power, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants atomic plants to generate a quarter of the country’s electricity in the future.
The Japanese accident has reignited concerns about nuclear safety in Italy, where there is traditionally strong anti-atomic sentiment, ahead of a national vote on the construction of new nuclear plants, due to be held by mid-June.
“Italy’s stance on the nuclear programme hasn’t changed,” Stefania Prestigiacomo told a news conference in Brussels.
She said Italy was concerned about the developments in Japan, but she thought it was unsuitable to use the crisis to influence domestic nuclear debate.
Italy’s biggest utility, Enel, has plans to start building nuclear power stations in the country together with French power giant EDF in 2013.
Prestigiacomo’s comments come as Switzerland suspended approvals of three new nuclear power stations and Germany said it could suspend extension of the life of nuclear power plants after the blast in Japan.
In 1987, nuclear energy was rejected by a public vote in Italy after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and green groups and several opposition politicians are calling on the public to do the same again which would likely derail the planned revival.
“Nuclear revival plans are likely to be mothballed,” Luigi De Paoli, energy economy professor at the Bocconi University in Milan, told Reuters.
“We can expect a strengthening of the anti-nuclear opinion in the country which is likely to lead to a “No” outcome at the referendum.”
Even though referendum results can be circumvented in theory, no politician would run a risk of a headlong clash with a clearly expressed anti-nuclear public opinion, De Paoli said.
A snapshot public opinion poll conducted by Italy’s SkyTg24 TV news among its viewers showed that 63 percent were against nuclear power in Italy after the accident in Japan.
Japan scrambled to avert a meltdown at a stricken nuclear plant on Monday after a hydrogen explosion at one reactor and exposure of fuel rods at another, just days after an earthquake and tsunami which killed at least 10,000 people.
Italian environmental activists from Greenpeace, Legambiente and WWF called on members of Italy’s recently created nuclear safety agency to resign after “they have played down the gravity of the accident in Japan,” Legambiente said in a statement.
The country’s earthquake risk is fresh in the minds of Italians, after its worst earthquake since 1980 struck central Italy around the city of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people and flattening whole towns.
If Italy scraps nuclear plans, the country would remain heavily dependent on costly imports of oil, gas and other energy resources, Davide Tabarelli, head of Nomisma Energia think tank told Reuters.
Italy aims to reduce its dependence on energy imports, which supply about 80 percent of its needs. Its suppliers include crisis-hit countries such as Libya, from which it imports about 25 percent of its oil and about 12 percent of its gas.
Reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan and Catherine Hornby in Rome; editing by Jason Neely