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Italy will return to nuclear power

Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola announced on Thursday that the newly appointed government would reinitiate a nuclear power programme during its mandate. Italy halted nuclear power production 20 years ago.

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The Italian government said Thursday it would begin building nuclear power stations, reversing a 20-year ban in an initiative likely to spark strong resistance and take a long time to come to fruition.

"During the term of this parliament, we will lay the first stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear power stations," Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola told the Italian employers' federation Confindustria.

"We can no longer avoid an action plan for a return to nuclear power," he said, recalling a campaign pledge by Italy's newly named right-wing prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to take such a step.

"Only nuclear power stations can produce energy on a large scale, in a secure way at competitive costs and one that respects the environment."

A decision to abandon nuclear power was taken in a 1987 referendum following the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. The country's four nuclear plants operating at the time were shut down.

But Confindustria head Emma Marcegaglia said the time has now come "to invest in nuclear energy" as the country has become too dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas.

Following the Confindustria meeting, Fulvio Conti, head of Italy's principal power group Enel, said his company was "technically ready" to take part in the initiative, the Ansa news agency reported.

"It's a good start on the part of the government, which confirms the need to diversify (energy) sources and to invest in infrastructure," he said. The Italian government controls a 30 percent stake in Enel.

Conti last month said it would likely take "seven to 10 years for a new nuclear generator to come online."

Italy has suffered occasional power shortages in recent years, due in part to problems with its electricity distribution network.

In September 2003, the entire country was hit by a power cut because of problems with the supply of electricity bought from Switzerland.

As with other countries in Europe, Italy buys power at peak periods from neighbours, including France where most electricity is nuclear generated.

In the winter of 2006 the government had to impose economy measures and tapped into its strategic reserves in the face of an interruption in Russian gas supplies.

Italy depends on foreign sources for 87 percent of its energy needs. Oil accounts for 43 percent and gas 36 percent of its energy use.

Russia and Algeria along account for 67 percent of Italy's gas needs. Sixty percent of the country's electricity output is powered by gas, according to Enel.

A return to the nuclear option promises to be long and complicated, not least because of expected political and activist opposition.

"The creation of a body to manage nuclear power, the authorisation to build a facility and the construction of the first plant means that the first station would have trouble becoming operational before 2020," Edison, another Italian energy group, said recently.

The government's announcement Thursday sparked criticism from groups such as Legambiente, the country's leading environmental defence association, which pledged to mount "very determined" opposition and questioned where the government would get the money to finance its nuclear ambitions.

"Mr. Scajola speaks of a new generation reactor, suggesting that it would be the fourth generation, which is still at an embryonic stage," said Legambiante president Vittorio Cogliati Dezza.

"Those reactors, if all goes well, would be ready 20 to 25 years from now."

Ermete Realacci, environmental spokesman for the leftist Democrat Party: "To return to nuclear power in Italy in five years time (the life of the current parliament) is a political statement."
  

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