Italy, the radioactive democracy

An Italian vote on nuclear energy on June 12 could well have had a disastrous impact on the whole of Europe. Berlusconi and the Italian media were hoping that no-one had noticed, but they had.
(This article was first published on 2 June 2011 and updated on 14 June 2011)
Giulio D’Eramo
14 June 2011


Italy votes in favour of a nuclear-free Italy, a cheap, clean glass of water, and a dream…

 (updated on June 14)

29 million Italians (out of 47 million eligible) voted against nuclear energy development in the peninsula, against a partial but fast-paced privatization of water, and against the most recent law designed by the Prime Minister's lawyers to block the last batch of prosecutions pending against him.

As referendums are valid only if more than half of the eligible voters cast their ballots, the government had adopted the strategy of not voting (yes, a democratic government that asks you not to vote). This strategy had always worked in the past fifteen years, in large part thanks to Berlusconi’s stranglehold on private and state TV, but water and nuclear energy issues have prompted a rare civil society mobilization which managed to reverse the pattern as 57% of the electorate took to the ballots.

Also, contrary to past referendums, the church backed democracy instead of the government, as its doctrine on profits and its mistrust for sciences prompted the Pope to call for the people to vote – although he did so quite late on, and not with as much strength as previous popes had voiced against referendums on divorce, abortion or assisted pregnancy.

The vote on nuclear power should be particularly welcome - also by our neighbours - in this extremely earthquake-prone country, unable to deal with normal garbage (it's now three years since the streets of Naples became an open rubbish dump),  let alone with radioactive waste!

But very important is also the vote on water, blocking a sell-off of state assets and imposing a ‘diminished’ profits norm on all public services, be they public or privatized. The significance of this issue for the population at large had probably been underestimated by analysts, and this result did more for the cause of the referendum (and hence for the principle of democratic representation) than the Fukushima disaster. Although the discrepancy is minimal it is interesting to note that the referendum on nuclear energy ‘only’ scored 94.6 %, while the one on Berlusconi's trials was 95% and the one on water 96%.

Many MPs from Berlusconi's own party and from that of its ally, the Northern League - like the Minister of Interior, R. Maroni - went to vote against the advice of their leaders. At the same time, it must be added that the left is now celebrating a victory to which they contributed little, if anything. We are reminded that in 2007 the opposition leader, P. Bersani, assured the US ambassador that the centre left government was in favour of the nuclear option (wikileaks), and that the water referendum was asked for by 1.4 million people, not by a political party. As a Greenpeace activist says: “there is no political coalition that has or will ever gather as many votes”.

As true as this is, it seems another blow to Berlusconi's rule. He who had entered politics wearing the clothes of the anti-politician, a self-made-man to govern for the good of the people and not for the privileged, is now finally perceived as yet another unfairly privileged politician.

This anti-political perception (populistic, some might say) underlies the success of this referendum, as a banner announced today: “the rights of the many matter more than the privileges of the few”.

To those leftist leaders that called for the government to fall, the Leader of the only political party to have strongly backed the referendum on water, Italy of Values (IDV), stated:

“If all those who did not back the referendum were to resign, the parliament would be empty”.

So the end of Berlusconi's era, and a better political class, are still a dream, but we can surely cheer for a nuclear-free Italy, and for a cheap, clean glass of water.

On nuclear issues and natural resources many books have been written describing the “failure of democracy”.  Instead of discrediting our most precious achievement, I would say that there are issues where representative democracy fails, and direct democracy works.

See below for a detailed introduction to the issues raised in these referenda:

Mr. Berlusconi's coalition has suffered a major hit in the recent administrative elections, but it is yet too early to celebrate as a crucial vote for the future of Italy (and indeed Europe) is due on June 12. On that date, Italians will have the chance to vote on nuclear energy development and the ongoing privatization of water, in a national referendum. The nuclear alternative had already been rejected in a similar referendum, 24 years ago. But since referendums in Italy are not binding for succeeding administrations, the ruling political parties have long endorsed a return to the risky energy source in the second most earthquake prone country in Europe.

The Italian constitution requires the collection of more than 500,000 signatures of adult citizens to call a referendum. This time, the organizers had turned in a record 1.4 million signatures long before the Fukushima disaster highlighted the fundamental risks associated with nuclear energy. While Italians are strongly in favour of the referendum, two factors are prone to undermine its success: first, in order to be legally binding and valid, more than 50 percent of the Italian population have to participate and, secondly, if approved, referendums are not binding for successor governments.

The 50 percent quorum is the reason why neither Mr. Berlusconi's nor the state owned TV channels (totalling more than 80% of the audience share) have programmed any kind of information into their schedules on the issues at stake in the referendum, and refused to broadcast advertisements paid for by the supporters' associations. Although unethical, Mr. Berlusconi's channels do have the right to do so, while the veto of the public broadcasters is altogether at odds with its fundamental principle as a public service. A deafening silence in the media and beyond has been the result.

The reason for this move is simple: Italians are strongly against both nuclear energy and the privatization of water, so the best option for the government is to ensure that the quorum will not be reached. This explains why the referendum was scheduled for after, and not together with the May 15 administrative elections (at an additional cost of at least 200 million euros for the taxpayer). The region of Sardinia decided to hold a consultative referendum on nuclear energy along with the administrative elections. The result, which unfortunately has no binding value for the national government, underlined the general unpopularity of nuclear energy: the nay-votes reached a record-high of 97 percent.

Hence, the government is in fact not campaigning in favour of either of these issues, just hinting instead that the issue is far too complicated to be decided by ordinary people. A similar strategy paid off in 2005, when a referendum on the use of stem cells for research fell short of the quorum. While the issues of nuclear energy and water privatization would normally attract way more voters than stem cell research, Berlusconi's strategy seems to have paid off: a recent poll suggested that only 30 percent of all Italians know about the Referendum.

Much as in 1987, the referendum comes after a crisis in which the sentiments of the population have taken a big shift towards anti-nuclearism. And as in 1987, the government has put ongoing nuclear projects on hold in order not to risk a defeat at the referendum. But this pause has been merely for PR reasons, as Berlusconi himself acknowledged in a meeting with President Sarkozy: “we are putting our nuclear policies on hold for the time needed to let the population forget about the Fukushima disaster. Maybe a year or less. Then everything will go on as scheduled. You can be assured, we want to go ahead.”

While the benefits of nuclear power in light of debates on CO2 emissions and global warming may be questionable in the first place, Italy has particular reason to doubt its fitness as a location for nuclear power plants. The reasons for this lie in Italy's susceptibility to earthquakes (in 1908 Italy witnessed a tsunami with 10m waves hitting Calabria's coasts – and experts fear things will get worse), but also its proximity to the sea and abundant subterranean water supplies, and thus vulnerability to leakages. But problems do not stop here: the chronic and convoluted misadministration of public assets, unsafe building policies adopted by the present government with continuous legalization of illegal constructions, together with the still ongoing garbage crisis in Naples must spring to mind. Thus the question would be, if you are unable to make sure that ordinary buildings like schools are built with sufficient safety measures, if you do not know where and how to stock or process garbage, how would you ensure nuclear safety?

A lot has been written on the economic (dis)advantages of nuclear energy - I will only note here that it is the only technology I know of that becomes more expensive as time passes, but Italy has some features that experts believe make the nuclear option even less desirable. In Italy, land is relatively productive in many ways: top level agricultural production, tourist potential based on the beauty of the landscape, the chance to install solar panels with up to 3 times the productivity of a country such as the UK. To be fair, Italy is the greatest electricity importer of the world. This seems to be a good argument for pro-nuclear groups, and for the US government. One of the Wikileaks cables about Italy stresses that nuclear energy would make Italy less dependent on Russian oil and gas. The problem is that gas, oil and electricity are used for different purposes, and we import electricity from France, not from Russia. So unless we build dozens of plants - only four are “planned”- in order to have home-heating work with electricity instead of gas - our petrol and gas consumption will not be affected. It is also worth noting that Italy imports electricity below production costs. This is because nuclear plants cannot be switched on and off daily, so that during the night France has an overproduction of electricity that is exported to Italy at costs that are significantly lower than Italian production costs. This might also be one of the reasons why renewable energy sources in Italy account for way less than 10% of consumption (17% in Germany, 40% in Portugal), even though sun and wind potentials in Italy are extremely good.

Besides the France-Italy agreement on nuclear development, French multinationals would also take a major slice of a privatized Italian water market. So France has a lot of profits to lose in this referendum, but at the same time, much to gain in terms of safety and peace of mind for their own citizens. A nuclear disaster in Italy would be a tragedy for the citizens of France and for the productivity of most of its industries alike. Beside the usual carelessness with which Italian institutions allow unsafe constructions to proceed we have to point out that it is now legal for the Italian government to stock radioactive leftovers without the knowledge of local institutions, let alone the people. This measure was passed by the 2008 centre-left government.

We know that world powers have long been searching for a place where to safely stock nuclear leftovers for the thousands years needed for radioactive components to break down. The United States have for example spent billions of dollars in research and planning for this purpose, with no results. To point out the carelessness of the Italian state (and private sector) on these issues, note that the 2003 Berlusconi government shocked the world by stating that Italy had found the perfect place in a matter of weeks, Scanzano Ionico. Was it really safe? Experts don't think so, but most of all they point to the fact that a serious assessment of the impact of waste on the territory had not been made, and digging began without pause for thought. Luckily enough, the local inhabitants occupied the site, and after an effective mobilization the government was forced to explain why they thought Scanzano Ionico could be that perfect toxic dump the whole world had been looking for for half a century – and counting. When nothing emerged to justify their assessment, the government merely stated that they would have to look for another site. Now such a mobilization of protest is impossible because of the 2008 law. So while we might wonder where the government is secretly hiding the nuclear wastes of the four nuclear plants that were dismissed with the 1987 referendum, the only chance we have now is to stop the creation of new radioactive material.

A famous Italian physicist, Giorgio Parisi points out an obvious, structural deficiency of the Italian approach to nuclear power: “the nuclear committee is headed not by a physicist, an engineer or a geologist, who are the ones that have the knowledge to assess what are the risks of nuclear plants in Italy and how we could best limit them – but by a famous oncologist. The whole idea is: if there are spills or other problems, we will know how to deal with them. But isn't the whole issue of nuclear safety about making sure that nothing goes wrong, instead of planning what to do in case something goes wrong? That's very dangerous, and it shows just how superficially the government is treating the issue”.

In a clear demonstration of solidarity, in 1987 the Italian people also made it illegal for the state controlled energy company Eni to build nuclear plants anywhere else in the world. But our representatives have since outsmarted us to the advantage of the nuclear lobby, and so Eni started building a few plants across Europe in 2003, probably warming up for the return of atomic energy to Italy itself. One of these plants, a very old model, is located a few miles east of Italy, in Slovenia.

And here we come to the last reason why the whole of Europe should be concerned about Italy's nuclear ambitions. One of the greatest pro-nuclear arguments is: “we're surrounded by nuclear plants in France, Slovenia, Switzerland. So if a nuclear disaster should occur, we are in serious trouble anyway, so wouldn't it make sense to at least enjoy the advantages of nuclear energy?”

As explained above, it is quite clear that a nuclear plant in our shaky peninsula would exponentially increase the possibility of a nuclear disaster in Europe. But this argument, which does not apply to the Italian situation, will instead be a very powerful tool once Italy goes nuclear. We can already hear the nuclear lobby shouting to the rest of Europe: “Italy - an earthquake prone country with ridiculously low respect for safety measures - has already opted for nuclear energy. If Italy has done it, why won't you?”

Till now everything that has happened is a repeat of the sequence of events in 1987: the content of the referendum, the fact that it came after a global nuclear disaster, the tactics the government is using to undermine the referendum, etc. But times have changed, the referendum idea has lost much of its appeal, the government has more control than ever over private and state TV channels. On the other hand, internet and social networks' influence is growing (The rapid growth of the new political party founded by supporters of the comedian Beppe Grillo, the “5 stars” party, is 100% a creature of the internet). We, as Italians and Europeans, can only hope that each and every Italian will come to cast a ballot.

So, if you have any Italian friends, please remind them that on the June 12 they are called upon to vote. At stake is the safety of all of us, but also the principle of democratic representation in one of the founding members of the European Union.

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