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Italy seeks nuclear power revival with French help

  Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi enlisted French help on Tuesday to overcome Italy’s 22-year-old taboo on nuclear power and build new plants, which France’s Nicolas Sarkozy said were “the key to European development”.

Volatility in oil prices and the clash between Russia and Ukraine over gas pipelines has highlighted how risky Europe’s energy sources can be, making nuclear power -- with virtually zero carbon dioxide emissions -- a more attractive option.

Italy’s centre-right leader, keen on new capacity despite a 1987 referendum suspending building new nuclear plants after the Chernobyl disaster, told a news conference Italy must “wake up and get our act together, because the future is in renewable and nuclear energy”. The Italian and French leaders signed a nuclear cooperation deal at a news conference in Rome following a bilateral summit on Tuesday.

The accord is underpinned by Italian utility Enel and French EDF’s agreement to study the feasibility of building four nuclear plants in Italy. “France is making available its know-how and that will allow us to save several years and start the construction of nuclear plants in a limited amount of time,” said Berlusconi.

Sarkozy said he and Berlusconi “want nuclear power to become a European issue because it represents the key for development”. Promising “unlimited cooperation”, the French president said “by 2020 nuclear plants will have to be massively developed, nobody can in any way veto that”.

“VERY REAL PROSPECT”

Italy’s plans may face political resistance, but Berlusconi has a strong parliamentary majority and the main centre-left opposition is on its knees after recent election defeats. He can also point to a growing trend back to nuclear power in Europe.

Sweden, which had voted to phase out nuclear power in a 1980 referendum, now plans to lift the ban and Britain is drawing up plans to revive its nuclear plants.

Italy’s government says it needs eight to 10 European Pressurized Reactors (EPR), or improved third-generation plants. Enel officials said the first plant should be ready by 2020.

Davide Tabarelli, chairman of the Nomisma Energia sector think-tank, said Italy was taking an important decision but there were questions about how it would be implemented. “We do not have authorization procedures, we don’t have an energy policy, we don’t have approval from the environment ministry, we don’t have sites selected for it and I don’t think any town, any village would agree to host such a site,” he said.

But Ernst & Young power specialist Tony Ward said nuclear power for Italy now looked like “a very real prospect”. “There has been a very significant move by a number of countries who have gone through neutral or negative to very positive about nuclear programs,” he said. “It’s primarily driven by fear of security of supply, principally gas, but oil as well,” said Ward.

The Enel/EDF agreement specified that the Italian company would have a majority stake and that both companies could sell on shares as long as they jointly maintain a controlling stake. Enel has a 12.5% stake in France’s first European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), or improved third-generation plant, which is being built at Flamanville in northwest France.

The deal provides for greater Enel participation in France’s nuclear program, including in five more EPR plants planned. (Reuters)