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Berlusconi acknowledges reversal on nuclear power

14 june 2011, 12:05
Italians overwhelmingly approved a referendum blocking a return to nuclear power, official results released Tuesday showed, reflecting wavering faith in its safety after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, AFP reports.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi acknowledged defeat in the opposition-backed referendum, saying on Monday the will of Italians was clear.

More than 94 percent of those who turned out voted to scrap his plans, according to interior ministry figures released early Tuesday morning -- though votes cast by citizens living abroad had yet to be counted.

The government's timetable to start producing nuclear energy by 2014 had already been put on hold in April amid growing public concern following the disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.

With many results from the two-day referendum, Berlusconi acknowledged the coming defeat in comments to reporters Monday.

"Following a decision being taken by the Italian people, Italy will probably have to say goodbye to the issue of nuclear power stations," he conceded.

"We will have to commit strongly to the renewable energy sector."

Following his remarks, shares in renewable energy company Enel Green Power rose 1.41 percent on the Milan stock exchange.

Although Italy abandoned atomic energy in a 1987 referendum after the Chernobyl disaster, Berlusconi had made reintroducing it a key part of his election platform.

Italians however proved unconvinced by government reassurances that it was eco-friendly and would slash electricity bills in a country heavily reliant on electricity.

In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, Italians remained as wary as ever of the safety risks.

A beleaguered Berlusconi had urged his supporters not to vote to vote in the referendum, presumably hoping that the turn-out would not reach the 50 percent threshold required for the results to have legal force.

Official data however showed nearly 56 percent of voters had taken part.

The premier's People of Freedom party gave its members a free choice on the nuclear referendum.

And government supporters who feared their regions would be picked as sites for Italy's new nuclear power stations had said they would vote "no" to nuclear.

The governor of the Venice region, Luca Zaia, a member of the Northern League party, part of the ruling coalition, said Italy risked "finding out in 15 years, when the first power station goes live, that we've made an anachronistic mistake."

For Stefano Ciafani, head scientist at environmental group Legambiente the referendum victory meant saying "goodbye to nuclear in our country."

Monday's result combined with the 1987 vote meant it would be difficult for any party to push for nuclear in the future, he told AFP.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, had said that a vote against nuclear power in Italy "could open a serious phase of reflection in other member states" of the European Union.

The move to drop nuclear comes after Germany's decision on May 30 to phase out atomic energy in Europe's biggest economy between 2015 to 2022.

The Fukushima calamity has sent shockwaves across Europe.

Switzerland is also examining a proposal to phase out the country's nuclear plants by 2034.

Slovakia has said it will beef up its atomic security measures, while enthusiasm for a new generation nuclear reactor in Finland has waned sharply: polls there suggest more than half of Finns no longer trust nuclear power.

For Ciafani, the Italian referendum "is another confirmation that Europe will use nuclear less and less," though France was an exception to the rule given its strong interest in building new power stations, he added.

On Saturday, Japan marked three months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that caused the world's worst nuclear accident in 25 years, leaving 23,500 people dead or still unaccounted for.

The 9.0-magnitude quake struck below the Pacific seafloor sending giant waves over the country's northeastern Tohoku region and crippling the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which is still leaking radiation.

Berlusconi hoped Italy would meet 25 percent of its electricity needs with nuclear energy by 2030. Experts will now have to draw up a radically different policy, based largely on renewable energy.

Government figures show 64.8 percent of the electricity used in Italy at the end of 2010 came from fossil fuels, 22.2 percent came from renewable energy sources while 13 percent was imported from abroad.

By Mathieu Gorse

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