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Italy Freezes Its Nuclear Plan After Japan Crisis

European leaders meet in Brussels Thursday with the nuclear disaster in Japan very much on their minds. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for the European Union to have common safety standards for nuclear power plants, but agreement will be difficult.

On Monday, energy ministers could not even agree on how and when to conduct stress tests on European nuclear plants. Reactions to the Fukushima accident have differed sharply across Europe.

In Italy, fear of losing upcoming local elections has forced the conservative government to slow its push to re-introduce nuclear power. Rome is calling for a one-year moratorium on nuclear power but anti-nuclear activists say it's just a ploy to buy time.

Next month marks the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history. A year later, in 1987, Italians overwhelmingly voted against nuclear energy in a nationwide referendum. Italy's four nuclear power stations were shut down.

Two years ago, the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that Italy would go nuclear again. Then came the Japanese tsunami.

Lack Of Common Policy

Thousands of people gathered in a Roman square last weekend for an anti-nuclear rally. A speaker on the stage said Italy is the only European country whose environment minister is pro-nuclear energy.

There are already 143 reactors in the European Union — some of which are obsolete. Many demonstrators voiced concerns over the safety of several reactors built by the Soviets in former communist countries.

Leoluca Orlando, a member of the opposition Italy of Values party, said the problem is the European Union's failure to forge a common policy on nuclear energy.

"We demonstrated it's possible just to abolish in one day the German currency, the French currency, the Italian currency and to build the euro," Orlando says. "But we are today a European Union of bankers. We need to be a European Union of citizens. It is a long way to reach this point."

Fears Renewed

Right after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Italy's industry minister, Paolo Romani, voiced the government's determination to go ahead with its nuclear power program.

"Nineteen percent of our energy sources come from nuclear-fueled power stations in neighboring countries. Since we already take advantage of nuclear energy, it is unimaginable that we should retreat from the path we have undertaken," he said.

But many polls suggest the majority of Italians feel otherwise — Fukushima has revived their Chernobyl nightmares.

Italo Cerboni, who restores antique furniture, says nuclear energy is obsolete and dangerous.

"Besides, we have mafias that dispose toxic waste illegally — just think what they'll do with nuclear waste," he says. "I can't help but suspect that behind all this love of nuclear energy there are lobbies — speculators, politicians and the mafia."

Weighing The Risks

Since the 1987 anti-nuclear referendum, Italy has still not disposed of all of its nuclear waste. It also abandoned nuclear research — now lacking know-how and technicians. Last year, only 75 Italians got degrees in nuclear physics, compared with 300 in 1987.

Environmentalists and others opposed to nuclear energy also point out that Italy is highly prone to earthquakes. There have been seven quakes over magnitude 6 in the last 100 years.

Meanwhile, this Mediterranean country is far behind Germany in using solar power.

Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Carlo Rubbia says Italy should reflect carefully on the security risks involved with nuclear energy.

"We must acknowledge that renewable energy sources are an alternative," he says. "Like oil and coal, uranium is limited. But the sun is ours and it's forever."

While German environmentalists, backed by the chancellor of nuclear-free Austria, are gathering signatures to demand EU-wide legislation on nuclear power, Italians will get another chance to have their say June 12 in a new referendum on nuclear power in their country.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.