March 12, 2011 / 3:16 PM / 9 years ago

Japan blast sparks fears over Italy nuclear revival

* Govt won’t change govt plans to relaunch nuclear sector

* Opposition points to dangers for earthquake prone areas

By Catherine Hornby

ROME, March 12 (Reuters) - Italy will not change plans to relaunch its nuclear energy sector after a blast at a Japanese atomic plant was triggered by an earthquake, a senior government politician said on Saturday.

Italy is the only Group of Eight industrialised nation that does not produce nuclear power, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants nuclear plants to generate a quarter of the country’s electricity in the future.

It is also listed among the countries at high risk of natural disasters, mainly due to earthquakes, and the explosion in Japan after a massive earthquake has raised questions about the viability of nuclear power production in Italy.

“The position remains what it is, you can’t keep changing it,” Fabrizio Cicchitto, leader of Berlusconi’s PDL party in the lower house told reporters on Saturday. “It’s not just recently that we have energy problems,” he said.

Italy aims to reduce its dependence on energy imports, which supply about 80 percent of its needs. Its suppliers include crisis-hit countries such as Libya, from which it imports about 25 percent of its oil and about 12 percent of its gas.

Opposition politicians and green groups reacted angrily to Cicchitto’s comments, arguing that the blast in Japan proves the dangers of building nuclear power plants, especially in earthquake zones.

“What happened in Japan shows that safe nuclear power does not exist even when you have the most advanced technology,” said Felice Belisario from the opposition Italy of Values party.

“The risks, above all in countries with high seismic zones like Italy, are too big,” he added.

The country’s earthquake risk is fresh in the minds of Italians, after its worst earthquake since 1980 struck central Italy around the city of L’Aquila in April 2009, killing more than 300 people and flattening whole towns.

Italy’s constitutional court ruled in January that a national referendum could go ahead on the construction of nuclear power plants and it is due to be held between mid-April and mid-June.

Public opinion in Italy has been generally hostile to nuclear energy, and a 1987 referendum following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine closed all plants and phased out production.

Italy’s biggest utility, Enel, has plans to start building nuclear power stations in the country together with French power giant EDF in 2013..

Enel declined to comment on Saturday.

In November, Italy set up a new nuclear safety agency, which industry participants expect will define the precise criteria for selecting sites for nuclear power stations and oversee their construction and operation. (Additional reporting by Nigel Tutt in Milan; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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