Following last month's decisions to phase out nuclear energy in Germany and Switzerland and a major poll in France indicating public sentiment there has shifted against the industry, Italian voters during the weekend firmly rejected a ballot measure to lift a 24-year-old ban on new reactors.
The anti-nuclear vote dealt a keen blow to plans of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had advocated building new nuclear plants starting in 2013 to reduce Italy's dependence on foreign energy sources.
The question heading into the weekend referenda on nuclear power and the privatization of the country's water system was whether voter turnout would reach the required 50 percent to make the votes binding.
But almost 57 percent of Italians went to the polls and the vast majority of them -- about 95 percent -- chose to reject Berlusconi's plan and opted for the country to keep in place a ban imposed in 1987, a year after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, election officials said.
Berlusconi admitted defeat on the nuclear issue Monday, telling reporters in Rome, "We shall have to say goodbye to nuclear (energy)," and indicating his government would now do an about-face and concentrate on developing renewable sources, The Guardian reported.
The vote and Berlusconi's reversal on nuclear energy was greeted with euphoria by environmentalists and other opponents who had bitterly campaigned against the allowing a resumption of the Italian nuclear industry.
They noted with irony that Italian voters, who first rejected nuclear power after Chernobyl, opted to do again only weeks after another nuclear disaster, this one at the Fukushima reactor in Japan.
"Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and just three months since the earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc at the Fukushima nuclear complex, Italy, regardless the reckless will of its government, becomes the third country, joining Germany and Switzerland, to exclude nuclear power from their future energy sources," Greenpeace International wrote on its blog Monday.
"We are happy," Carmelo Iacono, president of the Italian Association of Medical Oncology, said in a statement. "(The referendum result) is not an emotional reaction but comes from a considered choice, the choice of the citizens to defend their country and health from the enormous risks of nuclear power, which, we repeat, is the most carcinogenic element that exists."
Despite the strong support of Berlusconi and his center-right government for nuclear power, polls have consistently shown the Italian public opposes reactors as unsafe in their earthquake-prone nation despite their reliance on foreign energy.
The prime minister had sought to supply 20 percent of Italy's power consumption with domestic nuclear energy by 2020 but the referendum result dealt a blow to plans by the Italian electricity utility Enel and Electricite de France, the French energy conglomerate, to build new reactors in the country.
Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had reached an agreement in 2009 to provide four new reactors under the deal.
The vote also reveals a deepening split in Europe over nuclear energy. While Germany, Switzerland and now Italy have moved to phase it out or ban it, France under Sarkozy and Britain remain firmly committed to the power source.
But a poll conducted for the Journal Du Dimanche by the French Institute for Public Opinion earlier this month indicated French popular sentiment about nuclear energy has swung sharply negative in the wake of Fukushima.
More than 6-in-10 of respondents said they favored a shutdown of nuclear power plants over a 25- to 30-year period, the poll indicated.
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