Italy plans to resume building atomic plants

ROME, ITALY - Italy announced that within five years it planned to resume building nuclear energy plants, two decades after a public referendum resoundingly banned nuclear power and deactivated all its reactors.

“By the end of this legislature, we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants,” said Claudio Scajola, minister of economic development. “An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore.”

The change is a striking sign of the times, reflecting growing concern in many European countries over the skyrocketing price of oil and energy security, and the warming effects of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. All have combined to make this once-scorned form of energy far more palatable.

“Italy has had the most dramatic, the most public turnaround, but the sentiments against nuclear are reversing very quickly all across Europe — Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and more,” said Ian Hore-Lacey, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, an industry group based in London.

The rehabilitation of nuclear power was underscored in January when John Hutton, the British business secretary, grouped it with “other low-carbon sources of energy” like biofuels. It was barely mentioned in the government action plan on energy three years earlier.

Echoing the sentiment, Mr. Scajola said, “Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment.”

A number of European countries have banned or restricted nuclear power in the past 20 years, including Italy, which closed all its plants. Germany and Belgium have long prohibited the building of reactors, although existing ones were allowed to run their natural lifespan. France was one of the few countries that continued to rely heavily on nuclear power.

Environmental groups in Italy immediately attacked any plan to bring back nuclear power. Giuseppe Onufrio, a director of Greenpeace Italy, called the announcement “a declaration of war.”

Emma Bonino, an opposition politician and vice president of the Italian Senate, said building nuclear plants made no economic sense because they would not be ready for at least 20 years.

“We should be investing more in solar and wind,” she said. “We should be moving much more quickly to improve energy efficiency, of buildings, for example. That’s something Italy has never done anything with.”

But conditions were very different in the 1980s, when European countries turned away from nuclear power. Oil cost less than $50 a barrel, global warming was a fringe science and climate change had not been linked to manmade emissions. Perhaps more important for the public psyche, almost all of EuropeÂ’s nuclear bans and restrictions were enacted after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in which radioactivity was released into the environment.

The equation has changed. Today, with oil approaching $150 a barrel, most European countries, which generally have no oil and gas resources, have been forced by finances to consider new forms of energy — and fast. New nuclear plants take 20 years to build. Also, Europeans watched in horror in 2006 as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia cut off the natural gas supply to Ukraine in a price dispute, leaving it in darkness.

New green technologies, like solar power, wind and biofuel, cannot yet form the backbone of a countryÂ’s energy strategy, and it is not clear that they will ever achieve that level.

Italy is the largest net energy importer in Europe, but nearly all European countries rely heavily on imported energy — particularly oil and gas.

Enel, Italy’s leading energy provider, announced this year that it would close its oil-fired power plants because the fuel had become unaffordable. Italians pay the highest energy prices in Europe. Enel has been building coal plants to fill the void left by oil. Coal plants are cheaper but create relatively high levels of carbon emissions, even using the type of new “clean coal” technology Enel had planned.

A few European countries, like Germany and Poland, could likewise fall back on their abundant coal reserves if they rejected oil and gas — but most of the coal mined in each country is of low grade and pollutes highly.

After the government announcement opening Italy to nuclear power, Enel’s managing director, Fulvio Conti, said, “We are ready.” But he added that “new regulation and strong agreement on the plan within the country” would be needed.

Enel, which operates power plants in several European countries, already has at least one nuclear plant, in Bulgaria, and has been researching so-called fourth-generation nuclear reactors, which are intended to be safer and to minimize waste and the use of natural resources. ItalyÂ’s old reactors still exist, but are too outdated to be reopened. New ones would have to be built.

The Italian government laid out few specifics to back its announcement and officials at the Ministry of Economic Development said they were still studying issues like exactly what kind of plants could be built, and whether a new referendum would be required to re-open Italy to nuclear power.

Marzia Marzioli, who leads a citizens’ campaign against new coal plants in Italy, said nuclear was equally repellent. “As with coal, nuclear energy is the exact opposite of what we would like for Italy.”

“It is a choice that doesn’t consider the alternatives,” such as solar power, she said.

To build nuclear plants, Italy would almost certainly have to improve its system of dealing with nuclear waste. The plants that were shut down years ago still store 235 tons of nuclear fuel.


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