This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.
MONTALTO DI CASTRO, Italy — Daunted by the threat of a meltdown, Italians voted overwhelmingly in 1987 to ban nuclear power, but a government decree could bring back the long-shuttered plants — and Italians appear comfortable with the prospect.
The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has reversed Italy’s stated nuclear policy and has promised to start building new plants within five years.
“Italy certainly needs to produce more energy because now Italy’s the biggest importer of energy in Europe, and we have the highest prices in Europe, and that makes our companies less competitive,” said Lucio Malan, a senator in Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà party.
The referendum that closed the nuclear plants was held in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, shutting down those already running and blocking the construction of new ones.
Now, 21 years later, the government is ready to embark on a billion-dollar program that has so far met little opposition.
Environmentalist groups have never been very strong in Italy, as evinced by the sewage pumped into the sea and the heaping piles of trash by the roadside in areas south of Rome. Yet there has been a startling lack of debate on the nuclear issue since Economic Development Minister Claudio Scajola laid out the plan in May.
Berlusconi swept into power over a fragmented left in April elections and has the support of big business for his nuclear plan. Contrary opinions have hardly been heard.
“Our voice has been cancelled,” said Giuseppe Onufrio, campaign director of Greenpeace Italy.
Grazia Francescato of the Italian Green Party said Italians might start showing their opposition when they find out a nuclear plant has been scheduled for construction in their backyard.
But Italian opinion on nuclear energy has changed in the two decades since Chernobyl, in part because they import so much energy and in part because of prices.
While the final consumer prices may be lower, the costs of the plants themselves have skyrocketed. The latest estimate for a plant in Finland came to $6 billion for construction alone.
Much of Italy’s imported energy comes from France, a pioneer in nuclear energy in Europe and a country that produces about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors.
France’s nuclear program has made safety something of a moot issue for Italy, since any accident in France could easily be felt across the border, leaving Italians with nuclear risks but none of its benefits.
While the government claims nuclear power will give Italy safe energy on a large scale, detractors say Italy isn’t even safe now with no functioning nuclear plants.
“We still have not found a way to treat waste,” Francescato said. “Waste from the nuclear plants of 1987 is still dispersed in 13 sites in Italy, and we have not found one place to store the waste safely.”
Onufrio of Greenpeace said there are no guarantees for the future, either. “The intrinsically safe nuclear reactor, the fourth generation, we still haven’t see it,” he said.