Italy on Thursday said it would join a growing number of European countries returning to nuclear power in the face of rising energy prices and concerns about climate change. In a referendum in 1987, Italians voted to ban nuclear power and deactivate the country's reactors. But now the country says it wants to start building nuclear power plants again before the end of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's term, with the first construction scheduled to begin by 2013.
"Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment," Italian Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola said. "An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore."
Giuseppe Onufio, director of Greenpeace Italy, called it a "declaration of war." And it is unclear how Berlusconi's government will be able to override the anti-nuclear referendum.
It's a dramatic turnaround for Italy, which along with Germany and Belgium long led the campaign against nuclear energy in Europe. Germany and Belgium both banned construction of new plants years ago, and in 2000 the government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder moved to take all the country's nuclear power plants offline by 2022. But ambitious climate protection plans and the price of oil fast approaching $150 a barrel have sparked a debate about alternative energy forms across Europe, including Germany, where the government is calling for a 40-percent cut in carbond-dioxide emissions by 2020.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has her hands tied because the agreement between her party, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and its junior coalition partner in government, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, observes the planned phase-out. But Merkel has been very public in her desire for a nuclear power renaissance.
Speaking on Thursday at a national Catholic conference in the city of Osnabrück, Merkel said Germany's plan to abandon nuclear power "didn't make sense," especially as a country "with the safest nuclear power plants." She said the country would be making a "laughing stock" of itself if it abandoned the production of nuclear power for the sake of a good conscience only to turn around and import nuclear energy from other countries.