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Italy’s democracy is in tatters as Silvio Berlusconi and his ruling right-wing coalition work to block a citizen’s referendum that would repeal the decision of the Berlusconi government to return to nuclear energy production on the peninsula. Italy has not produced nuclear energy since 1990 and recent polls indicate that more than 75 % of Italians are opposed to nuclear energy production. The referendum in question is on the ballot for the 12th and 13th of June, although a recent call by the Berlusconi government for a one year moratorium on the relaunch of nuclear energy in Italy threatens to push the referendum off the ballot through a last minute legal ruling. The campaign to bring this referendum to a vote was spearheaded by opposition political party Italia Dei Valori (Italy of Values) which led a broad based coalition of citizen and environmental groups to gather the 500,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.
Italy is the only G8 country that does not produce nuclear energy. It has been free of functioning nuclear power plants since 1990 but does receive around 10% of its electricity from nuclear energy generated in France and Germany. Citizens successfully passed a referendum in 1987, one year after the catastrophic Chernobyl accident, that called for the phasing out and suspension of nuclear energy production. In 1987 Italy had two operating nuclear plants and has had four operational reactors in its history. In 2007 while campaigning for his third election, Berlusconi announced his intentions to return to nuclear energy production in Italy as a strategic part of a national energy policy.
Back in 2007 Berlusconi wasn’t the only one who supported a return to nuclear energy. Important elements of the newly formed Democratic Party also voiced their support for a return to nuclear power. A wikileaks cable 07ROME2438 revealed that Pier Luigi Bersani, the current secretary of the Italian Democratic Party who in 2007 was serving as Economic Development Minister for the Romano Prodi led Center Left coalition government, opened the door for Italy’s return to atomic energy by forging the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership agreement with then US energy secretary Samuel Bodman. At that time Bersani stated that “a return to nuclear energy was not excluded by the 1987 referendum” and that it was his hope that the agreement forged between the Prodi and Bush administrations would “help lead to a change in attitude from the Italian people toward nuclear energy.” Walter Veltroni, the ex-mayor of Rome who was the newly formed Democratic Party’s first candidate for president against Berlusconi in 2008, also voiced his openness to the idea of returning to Nuclear Energy production.
Since Fukushima Bersani and his fellow Democrats have been much more subdued about their support for Nuclear Energy and they have voiced strong opposition to the current government’s plan for the construction of new reactors. The Democrats have joined the chorus of the Green Party, Italia Dei Valori and scores of citizens groups in calling Berlusconi’s attempts to block the referendum a “theft” and a “deceptive attempt to hinder the democratic process.” Fukushima has inspired renewed vigor in the antinuclear movement and worked to sway public opinion in opposition to nuclear power that had become increasingly split over the past few years.
Following Berlusconi’s election victory in 2008 and his return to power for the third time since 1994, Italy’s new minister of economic development Claudio Scajola — before being forced out of office by a corruption scandal involving bribery and fraud in 2010 — announced that the government had scheduled the start of construction for the first new Italian nuclear power plant by 2013. On February the 24th of 2009, an agreement between France and Italy was signed allowing Italy to share in France’s expertise in the area of nuclear power station design. On July 9th 2009 the Italian legislature passed an energy bill covering the establishment of a Nuclear Regulatory Agency and giving the government six months to select sites for new plants. These sites have never been finalized. On the 3rd of August 2009, Italy’s energy giant Enel and Eletricite de France established a joint venture Sviluppo Nucleare Italia Srl for studying the feasibility of building at least four reactors using a design of French reactor builder Areva — the worlds largest nuclear energy company. These energy oligarchs, with Berlusconi as their champion, are doing everything in their power to preserve their multi-billion dollar investment in a nuclear future.
To this end Berlusconi’s council of ministers announced a one year moratorium on all questions relating to the research and activation of sites for new nuclear plants in Italy on the 24rd of March 2011, less than two weeks from the earthquake in Japan and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. This move was immediately met with skepticism from Italy’s antinuclear movement and opposition political parties and was seen as a poorly veiled attempt to block the June referendum. On April 26th, the 25th anniversary of the catastrophic Chernobyl accident, Berlusconi held a press conference with French president Nikolay Sarkozy in Rome. At this press conference Berlusconi made his radioactive intentions clear for all. “We are absolutely convinced that nuclear energy is the future for the whole world,” he said. He went on to detail how recent polls showed that the referendum to block nuclear power for decades to come could pass at this time and that by temporarily suspending Italy’s return to nuclear program the issue would be revisited when the Italian voters had been “calmed down” and returned to the realization that Nuclear Energy was the most viable and safe way to produce electricity. He went on to explain how the “leftists and ecologists” had manipulated the emotions of the Italian voters after Chernobyl and penalized the Italian people who have to pay higher electric rates than France that operates 58 nuclear power plants. Berlusconi explained that the “situation in Japan had scared the Italian voters” and that the “inevitable return to nuclear power in Italy” would not be abandoned nor would the collaborations between Enel and Eletricite de France.
Now with Germany and Japan announcing the phasing out of their Nuclear programs and the scrapping of plans for the construction of new reactors, it would seem like political suicide to barge full steam ahead with a pro nuclear stance, but this is Italy and Berlusconi is still at the command. Berlusconi is now in control of all the major television outlets, including the state owned RAI, so getting the word out to the voters that there will be a vote on the 12th and 13th of June is proving difficult, and the heavy hand of State censorship has been yielded. At the annual May Day concert in Rome, sponsored by Italy’s two largest labor unions and televised on the state run RAI, the performing artists were required to sign a waiver agreeing not to speak about the upcoming referendums or risk a fine of over ten thousand euros. This left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the attendees of this May Day celebration as news surfaced almost immediately that the state media outlet had censored the event.
As of now the referendum to block Nuclear Power is still on the ballot. Only a last minute ruling by the Supreme Court could remove it, and the Berlusconi government is banking on this decision as a result of their so-called nuclear moratorium. The antinuclear referendum is accompanied on the June ballot by two other referendums, one to repeal the Berlusconi government’s attempts to privatize water and the other to repeal a law called “legittimo impedimento” which was passed by the Right wing majority in order to protect Berlusconi from prosecution by giving him and members of parliament immunity from prosecution while serving in office. Each of these referendums required the gathering of half a million valid signatures and will need the high participation of 50 % plus 1 eligible voters to reach the mandated quorum in order to be considered valid. No legislative referendum has been able to reach this quorum in over a decade. Now the Berlusconi government is also trying to block the vote to keep water publicly owned. In recent legislation they created a new Water Authority in an attempt to legally block this referendum as well. While it is evident to the engaged and politically active citizenry that the Berlusconi government is pulling out all the stops to block the democratic process, the masses who get their information from Berlusconi’s private and state run television empire are being kept in the dark. No news on the referendums is reported unless it is it is very late at night or the early hours of the morning.
To publicize these referendums the citizens are taking to the streets, leafletting, using creative direct action and social networking on the internet to spread the news and get out the vote. On May 9th Greenpeace activists unfurled a large banner from Mussolini’s balcony on Palazzo Venezia in Rome. The banner includes a caricature of Berlusconi saying “Italians, I decide your future” and a call for Italians to vote on the Nuclear Referndum. Angelo Bonelli, President of the Italian Green Party, summed it up like this: “The referendums will be voted on anyway, despite the fact that the thieves of democracy have returned to action. The attempts of the government to steal the democratic rights of the Italian people to vote against nuclear energy and the privatization of water will not succeed.” On the 12th and 13th of June, the Italian people can change the course of their future by voting yes to say no to nuclear energy and the privatization of their water resources.
Michael Leonardi splits his time between Ohio and Italy. He can be reached at email@example.com