How will Italy vote?

The upcoming referendum

Maurizio Geri
June 1, 2011

Last September, The New York Times published an article on Tocco da Casauria, a small village of some 2,700 people near the city of Pescara, in the Abruzzo region, naming it one of the 800 Italian communities that make more energy than it uses because of the recent addition of renewable-energy plants. Tocco da Casauria's four wind-power plants allow the village to earn 170,000 euro each year by selling its surplus energy, which, in turn, is invested in public works. Yet currently, only 7 percent of Italy's power comes from renewable sources-even though Italy has significant potential for geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind energy. This small percentage reflects the country's very complicated planning and permit procedures.


Two years ago, the government led by Silvio Berlusconi proposed a new energy program based on the construction of new nuclear power plants. However, is Italy ready for nuclear power? A referendum to be held in a few weeks may include a point on the return to nuclear power, with the aim of gauging Italians' feelings on this issue.


On June 12 and 13, Italians will be called to vote on at least three, maybe four, referenda regarding certain laws approved in recent years by the Italian Parliament under pressure from the government, two of which were approved by a vote of confidence and one by decree law. Depending on the outcome, the first two queries, which are about public water, could abrogate the law that would eventually allow the privatization of public water services. The third, about ‘legitimate impediment,' could abrogate the law that allows a politician charged in a criminal trial to justify, in some cases, his or her absence in court. The fourth query could be about the construction of new nuclear plants on Italian territory.


Whether or not nuclear energy will appear on the ballot depends on the Italian Court of Cassation. The court will likely decide if it will be included in the referendum in the days leading up to it. Following the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan, the Italian government passed a decree declaring a moratorium for one year on the construction of nuclear power plants. It did so to wait for the results of ‘stress tests' conducted at nuclear power plants in the European Union and more information from the agency for nuclear safety.


Therefore, in theory, the nuclear power question could still make the ballot. However, if the government plans to continue its nuclear program, the moratorium could just be a way to buy time until citizens are less concerned with its implications. Berlusconi himself recently said, ‘If we had held the referendum today, the nuclear program in Italy would have not been possible for many years to come. We introduced this moratorium responsibly, in order to talk about it in one or two years, with a conscious public opinion. We are convinced that nuclear is an inescapable destiny.'

It would seem, then, that the moratorium serves to subvert the referendum, which, if the majority of Italians vote against nuclear power, could suspend the government's plans for much longer than one or two years. 


A civic initiative gave rise to the two referenda on the public water issue, whereas Italia dei Valori, a left-leaning party very much opposed to the centre-right majority government led by Berlusconi, promoted the other two referenda. Initially, it was proposed that citizens should vote on the referenda during the administrative elections held in May, but the Ministry of the Interior separated them, saying that Italian tradition dictates that there be separate dates for calls to the polls. (This despite the fact that had they been held together, the Interior Ministry would have saved about 300 million euro.) The fact is, separating the referendum from the administrative elections threatens the vote quorum, set at 50 percent plus one of registered voters. This means the referendum could be rendered invalid if there is low voter turnout; note that the quorum has never been reached in any referendum held in the last 15 years.


There is another important factor: thus far, the majority government has failed to properly publicize the referendum, so much so that even president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, intervened, asking for more public information. Concerned citizens, especially youth, have taken on themselves this important responsibility, spreading the word on the Internet to better inform the Italian people and get them to the polls.


The fact remains that in a referendum held in November 1987, 80 percent of Italians already rejected the construction of nuclear plants on the national territory. This vote came shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, the repercussions of which have been revealed since in the form of  the rampant increase in the incidence of cancer and thousands (Greenpeace speaks of millions) of lives lost. After 25 years, nuclear plants have demonstrated that they are never secure, even in a country as advanced as Japan. Yet Italy continues to be polarized on the issue.


‘Cons' on the issue abound, and the move would serve first and foremost to benefit major industry. Renewable energy would avoid all these problems, and would breathe life into research and development, which in Italy is rather atrophied.


Moreover, according to the ‘Vote yes to stop nuclear' committee, besides security issues, nuclear power is useless because the country already generates 100,000 megawatts of electric energy-enough to satisfy national consumption needs, which does not exceed 57,000 megawatts. Having nuclear plants would not diminish dependence on foreign energy, since Italy would still be obliged to import uranium, a very rare and expensive chemical element, in addition to the necessary technology and permits needed to operate nuclear plants. Moreover, plants would remain inoperative for many years during their construction and cost 600 billion euro. The problem of how to collect the radioactive waste, in a safe, defined location, without damaging the ecosystem, also has not yet been resolved.


On the opposite side, supporters of nuclear energy, such as the Nuclear Forum, an association founded by several nuclear multinational companies, say that the world's rapidly increasing population cannot survive without nuclear energy. Noting that oil, coal and gas are running out and that only a few countries have these resources, they opine that renewable energy resources cannot cover the world's energy needs. They claim that nuclear energy is safe today (even if they, too, after the Japanese disaster, spoke about a ‘moment of reflection'), and observe that losses caused by the particulate produced by fossil fuels are much greater than the losses that followed Chernobyl. They believe that nuclear energy would free Italy from energy dependence on foreign countries, and it would promote economic development in the country with the industrial and technological evolution that comes with building the plants. They also believe it will promote research and development, which would not be limited to nuclear energy.


The polls-along with the 300,000 people who demonstrated against it in Rome on March 26-indicate that the majority of Italians are against a return to nuclear energy. However, it remains uncertain whether the turnout will be sufficient or if the Court of Cassation will put the nuclear issue on the ballot.


As the world questions global energy systems in light of recent events, Italians have the opportunity to send a message to their government and the world regarding security and sustainability, rather than individual needs and profits in the production of energy. Why? Because it is the most important issue of our future.




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